WriteRoom 3.0 for OS X is out

Hog Bay Software just released WriteRoom 3. It’s available now from the Mac App Store, and its price has plummeted from $24.99 to just $9.99.

WriteRoom is one of two apps I use daily for writing (the other being Scrivener), and it was the earliest of the full-screen, streamlined Mac text editors that was worth a damn. Over time, rivals eclipsed WriteRoom in terms of looks and price, but the original retained the mix of customisation and efficiency that I require, and so I stuck with it (although on iPad I’ve been seduced by iA Writer, which on the Mac I find has a few too many shortcomings). Now, the latest release is sleeker, cheaper and bounds ahead of its rivals in most ways.

I’ll be reviewing the app in an upcoming issue of MacFormat, but if you’ve been mulling over checking out WriteRoom for a while, I wholeheartedly recommend jumping on board right now.

October 31, 2011. Read more in: Apple, Reviews

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My review of OS X Lion: the good, the bad and the ugly

Generally speaking, you’ll find two types of OS X Lion review online. One will have involved the reviewer living with beta versions and then updating the review on launch day, to see if bugs are squashed; the other will be the result of a day or two’s intensive usage, trying to force the OS to breaking point in double-quick time.

Both techniques have their benefits and drawbacks, but it’s fairly rare for reviewers to be able to use any application for a really solid chuck of time and then report on how it impacts on day-to-day usage. But that’s what I’m able to do on the blog, due to not being on deadline to myself; and with quite a few Twitter followers responding to my Lion whining, I figured I’d provide an overview of my thoughts so far, having installed Lion on my work iMac a week ago. (For comparison’s sake, the system is a 3.2 GHz i3 with 12 GB of RAM.)

The good

  • Quick Look. Apple’s preview technology alone made Leopard worth the upgrade fee. In Lion, it’s been upgraded in two particularly important ways. First, it now works in Spotlight, which speeds up searches. Secondly, the main Spotlight window resizes, where possible, according to the content it’s showing. The UI’s also changed, with the black background turning white. I thought I’d hate this, but it turns out to be a smart design move, because the new interface distracts less from the content.
  • Mail. At first, I considered reverting Mail back to its classic view, thinking Apple’s new iPad-style layout was taking things a bit too far, but then I changed my mind. Having given the Dock a much bigger go in recent months, I’ve discovered that Apple’s way of doing things can work out well if you don’t fight it too much (and, in the Dock’s case, also use some Terminal commands—I’ve added separators to the apps area and a couple of custom stacks for recent apps and docs). In iPad-style two-pane mode, with my important parent folders added to Mail’s toolbar as drop-downs, I’m very happy with Mail. It feels faster and more efficient than the old version, and the conversation threading is pretty good. There are issues with customisation (fonts in the messages list cannot be amended, which is pretty stupid, and keyboard page-up/down is disabled in the same list), but I’ve very rarely found myself showing the mailbox column and I’m happily getting to grips with the far more advanced search functionality.
  • Full-screen mode. This is more a feature that I can see the potential of than one I actually use. It’s certainly a great idea for anyone with small screens, because it provides the means to focus and maximise screen real estate for a document. (Whatever you’ve read, the full-screen mode is often more doc-based than app-based—open two Numbers spreadsheet and they each get a separate navigable screen, rather than you switching ‘windows’.) On a 27-inch iMac… well, I’m less impressed, but that’s largely down to Apple’s inability to design its applications in an adaptive manner. Safari and Mail both prove pointless on such a display, with acres of space around content, although iCal works pretty well. Numbers and Scrivener are two more apps I now use almost exclusively in full-screen mode.
  • Speed. Post-install, Lion was barely usable as Spotlight reindexed the system. And then it continued being pretty unusable. One reboot later and everything was fine; generally, the system seems a little faster for most tasks, with only animations providing the impression that certain actions are slower.
  • App restore. Those apps that support it now start up in the same state as you quit them. This is particularly useful for Safari, which is still a massive memory hog and needs restarting a few times every day. Now, you can quit and restart without losing any tabs and without having to mess about restoring windows and tabs manually. During crashes, I’ve also found apps supporting this feature reliably restore work, which, given my note in ‘the bad’ is just as well.
  • All My Files. The new default Finder window view has pissed off some Mac users (although it can be changed to your home folder or any other location), but it’s useful. You get a bunch of mini Cover Flow rows, each containing a specific file type, with the most recent items at the left. It’d be more useful if this powered-up ‘recent items’ list spoke to third-party apps (so ‘Music’ would show whatever iTunes had recently played, for example), and it’s not very configurable in terms of which rows are shown and their sort order, but I’m nonetheless finding it a worthy addition.

The bad

  • Wi-Fi. While my router’s not the most robust model in the world (top tip: never buy Belkin), it usually goes for longish periods before needing a reboot. Under Snow Leopard, the Mac only very rarely had problems connecting. Since OS X Lion arrived, the connection attempt times out after waking from sleep every single time. I’ve tried numerous tips to fix this, to no avail, bar removing all USB hard drives before sleeping the Mac (which has helped some people). Like most OS problems, I can’t imagine this is affecting a particularly large number of users, but others on my Twitter feed have similar issues and one thread on the Apple support site was well over 40 pages long last time I looked. Problems range from ad-hoc login problems through to complete Wi-Fi failure, so I’ve apparently not got it that bad, despite having to waste five minutes every time my Mac wakes. (Note: while 10.7.1 fixed this issue for some people, it hasn’t for me.) Update: I finally got around to replacing my Belkin with a DrayTek Vigor 120 and Airport Extreme. This morning, the Mac woke and connected to the network for the first time since Lion was installed. Therefore, I guess there are issues with the way in which OS X Lion, my Mac’s hardware and the Belkin N1 communicate; that said, the hardware was all working fine under Snow Leopard, and with the sheer number of Wi-Fi-oriented complaints across the web, I still think this is a point that counts against Lion.
  • Launchpad. To be fair, Launchpad could be good, but it’s currently half-baked. On iOS, this means of launching and managing apps makes some sense; on the Mac, the launch aspect works well enough, but the almost total lack of options is infuriating. You can’t sort apps automatically (you can only drag them individually), nor can you hide them without the help of third-party add-ons. On an iPhone, you merely have to put up with a few stock Apple apps, but on the Mac, installers and all manner of other crap show up. And while click-hold wiggles the icons, ready for deletion, this only works with apps installed using the Mac App Store. The entire thing reminds me of what would happen if you took DragThing, dumbed it down, then dumbed down the result of the dumbing down, and then continued doing this for an entire night, just because.
  • Mission Control. I’m also finding this half-baked. The idea is to give you an overview of what’s running on your Mac, including full-screen documents and apps. In reality, the grouped windows aren’t terribly useful, because they overlap and don’t enable you to expand them, nor can you navigate the windows using the keyboard. Mercifully, Quick Look support remains, and Exposé is still in place on a per-app basis.
  • The Mac App Store. Maybe it’s my machine, but the Mac App Store in Lion runs like crap. It’s so slow and locks up constantly. It makes buying apps—something so simple in Snow Leopard—a chore.
  • Scrolling. Apple’s ditched scrollbars and reversed scrolling direction in OS X Lion, to ape iOS; so you now use gestures to ‘push’ content in the direction you want it to move. That in and of itself isn’t too bad, but one thing I’ve learned this past week: you’re screwed unless you’re running a fairly recent Mac laptop or have a Magic Trackpad. The mouse isn’t enough to comfortably deal with gestures. By beef with the system, though, is largely its inconsistency regarding fallbacks. In Mail, you cannot scroll the messages list by paging up and down, so you’re forced to use gestures—unlike in iTunes; in iTunes, scrollbars don’t appear for mouse-grabbing on hover—unlike in Safari. And so on. The inconsistency isn’t great for such an important system component, nor is bringing over one of iOS’s worse failings: system-wide hidden mystery content. Want to know if there’s more to see in a document? Tough. You’ll have to wiggle the current page to check.
  • The grey. OS X Lion is very grey. Toolbars are grey. Sidebar icons are grey. It’s very dull. I’m sure some graphic designers will like the lack of distraction, but I often use colours for navigation cues, and most of them are now gone, which is a huge pity. Finder’s sidebar also no longer displays custom icons for folders, adding to hunt-and-peck issues rather than improving navigation.
  • Stability. I’ve had many crashes for previously stable apps under OS X Lion, including Numbers, TextEdit and Preview. I suspect this might in part be down to the new Resume feature, which, as previously noted, at least tends to put things back as they were on a relaunch.

The ugly

  • iCal. Seriously, what the fuck is going on with iCal, Apple? Skeuomorphic design might be the in-thing on the iPad, but were Mac users really complaining that iCal was tricky to use and yelling, “If only Apple would make it look a bit like a tacky leather calendar, like the iPad’s Calendar app, but worse, everything would be all right”. It’s hideous UI design; worse, it looks cheap and out of place alongside the slick, streamlined Mail (and even iCal’s own preferences, which look fine). And this is a pity, because iCal gets two things very right: the much-improved Day view, with its upcoming events list, and the ‘heat’ Year view, using colour to show how busy you are on each day. I use it in full-screen mode and try to avoid the leather.
  • Address Book. Yeah, they wrecked this one, too, making it simultaneously look like a Fisher-Price app and reducing its usability. Still, I guess we should think ourselves lucky: at least Mail didn’t suddenly turn into an on-screen mailbox, or force you to lick virtual stamps by swiping your Magic Touchpad with your tongue.

And the rest

There are some other aspects of Lion that I’m either not bothered about either way (the increase in gestures) or haven’t really used enough to comment on (Auto Save, Versions, Air Drop). Overall, despite the fairly balanced ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lists above, I’m actually pretty happy with Lion, not least since its £20.99 price-tag is reasonable. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Wi-Fi issue, I think I’d happily dismiss the other problems, apart from the visual-design disaster that is iCal.

What I do believe is essential with Lion, though, is an ability to rethink workflow. If you’re absolutely set in your ways, you’re screwed. It might not seem it from screen grabs, but this OS really does change a whole bunch of things. You need a trackpad. You need to realise Apple’s default method of scrolling is probably going to be the only method next time round. You need to go with the flow with the likes of Mail and iCal, because Apple’s not going to change its mind.

Also, with the Wi-Fi issues lots of users are experiencing, I strongly recommend you follow my advice and clone your Mac before upgrading, just in case you end up being one of the unlucky ones who cannot connect at all.

September 2, 2011. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Reviews, Technology

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A quickfire review of the iCade games controller for the iPad

Touch Arcade just reviewed the iCade, and made a bunch of points I agree with, but some that I vehemently disagree with, notably

I found tearing through these classic games [in Atari’s Greatest Hits] on the iCade to be everything I’d hoped it to be. On the whole, it’s just an awesome experience

and

As far as I’m concerned, the iCade (along with Atari’s Greatest Hits) is an absolute must-have iPad accessory for the serious retro gamer.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so QUICKFIRE HISTORY MODE!

In April 2010, wags at ThinkGeek announced the iCade, but, alas, it was April 1, stupid face! Duh! But heros in the distance emerged in the shape of ION Audio, who went “man, that’s a great idea”, licensed the design and made it a real boy.

I got to play with an iCade while working on issue 5 of Tap! magazine, and my review unit came pre-assembled, so I’ll have to take Touch Arcade’s word for how easy it is to put together. Touch Arcade’s bang-on about the unit itself, though:

  • The iCade feels weighty and robust. It feels like it could stand up to a lot of fairly heavy gaming.
  • The buttons have a great feel to them, and click in a very satisfying manner.
  • The stick’s travel is too long (and my unit’s one ‘stuck’ in the left position quite a lot), but is nonetheless reminiscent of arcade sticks of old. (I always used to play games with a Competition Pro, which had a lower travel and was therefore more responsive.)
  • The iPad sits very nicely within the unit in portrait mode, although you need to watch the surprisingly heavy lid doesn’t snap down on a finger, like it did on mine. (Ouch.)
  • In landscape mode, the iPad perches a little precariously in a small ridge.
  • Set-up/pairing with the iPad was reasonably simple, although in my case it took a few attempts.

The problem I have with the iCade as it currently stands is the games—well, app (singular) Currently, iCade only works with Atari’s Greatest Hits, which is a compilation I’d call middling if I was being charitable. The compilation includes a bunch of Atari 2600 games, which aren’t emulated correctly and only play in portrait (wasting loads of screen space), along with a selection of arcade hits, most of which were specifically designed by Atari to have unique control systems. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

In use, the iCade itself is actually pretty good, but the experience of the only compatible piece of software is not. Atari helpfully leave some of the interface behind, so you get to watch a giant pause button along with your game, but it helpfully removes the gigantic virtual joystick, leaving a huge blank space under the game. Had Atari enabled landscape mode for Atari 2600 games, I might have overlooked the shortcomings in emulation (major colour problems in some games, poorly emulated sound), but the entire thing felt more proof-of-concept than “an absolute must-have iPad accessory for the serious retro gamer”.

With arcade games, things weren’t much better. The games felt a bit like home conversions rather than the arcade originals: Tempest and Crystal Castles stripped of their spinner and trackball, respectively, and lumbered with joystick controls aren’t as satisfying nor as playable. However, ironically, because Atari’s Greatest Hits is so bad on the iPad, scaling up the iPhone mode’s virtual controls (meaning in Tempest that you need GIANT THUMBS to reach the superzapper button), iCade does actually make for a better experience—but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. And again there’s the interface issue, with some games barely filling half the screen and many showing redundant controls.

Given that the iCade will cost 75 quid in the UK (it’s $99 in the US), I think you’d be bonkers to consider it, purely because of the lack of software. But if ION can get a lot of developers on board, and those developers actually take enough care when adding iCade support (minimum: full-screen games), the device would be a very different prospect. I know Manomio (the C64 emulator guys) are already working on support, and I sincerely hope others follow suit, including Taito, Namco and especially Capcom. Street Fighter games on iPad with the iCade would be fantastic, as would Namco’s Pac-Man: Championship Edition. But that’s currently a big ‘if’. For now, then, my opinion of the iCade is subtly different to what Touch Arcade wrote, but it’s an important difference: iCade could become an absolute must-have iPad accessory for the serious retro gamer—but it’s not there yet.

May 25, 2011. Read more in: Apple, iOS gaming, Reviews

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A sort-of review of GarageBand for iPad

GarageBand was recently released for iPad. It costs three quid in the UK (five dollars in the US), and brings some of the desktop recording studio to Apple’s tablet. In typical Apple style, it ramps up the shiny shiny and it makes creativity (of sorts) very easy, thereby blinding various publications into giving it their highest rating.

Or does it?

OR DOES IT? (Etc.)

I’m a bit of a GarageBand for Mac fan-boy, and I’ve been writing and recording songs since I was in my teens, which means for over a few years now (if ‘a few’ means ‘about 20’, which IT OBVIOUSLY DOES NOT AND MY HAIR ISN’T GOING GREY). I think it’s a great application that too many people dismiss as a toy. While on the surface, GarageBand is a case of dragging loops to make a ‘song’ and either 1) playing around and having fun or; 2) deluding yourself into thinking you’re going to get a number-one hit single with Loopy Looping Loops, GarageBand has depth. You can record guitars and vocals, and you can capture live performances through software instruments, and then edit them to your heart’s content. I’m not going to pretend that GarageBand is Logic, nor even Logic Express, but it’s a perfectly good Logic Express Express, and I know several bands who’ve used the application for everything but mastering, so it’s clearly capable.

This absolutely isn’t the case with GarageBand for iPad, which is, in its current incarnation, too often a toy. Now, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with this, and I’ve a feeling it’s going to go down extremely well with many people. The app looks great, mostly (although not always) works very nicely, and enables you to make a nice noise without much effort, just like the Mac version. The problem for me is that GarageBand for iPad then slams on the brakes and screeches to a halt. Surprised musicians in the passenger seat are left there with whiplash, saying “hang on a bit—can’t we go any further?”, but Apple merely opens the door and tells them to bugger off, leaving them stranded at a sign pointing to NanoStudioville and BeatMaker Town. What’s interesting, though, is that it would take relatively little effort to turn the application into a tool with enough depth to appeal to and be useful for a much wider audience.

In interface and usability terms (at least for relative newcomers), GarageBand gets almost everything right. On creating a new song, you then get to choose between a number of instrument types: keyboard, drums, live guitar and microphone. There’s also a sampler (record a sound and play it using the keyboard) and four ‘smart’ instruments (drums, bass, guitar, keyboard), which are effectively a means of creating your own auto-accompanyment, by dragging drums to a grid or prodding chord markers to make guitars strum. (If you’ve ever seen the now comically overpriced Band for iPhone, the smart instruments are similar to its ‘funky drummer’ and ’12 bar blues’ sections, but much nicer and far more flexible.)

The smart instruments are undoubtedly where most users will first head, and in combination with Apple’s (slightly small) selection of built-in loops, it’s pretty easy to create an eight-bar mini-song. It’s very unlikely you’ll feel ripped off, since the product is a lot of fun, and it’s also an app that showcases precisely why Apple believes the ten-inch screen is optimal for a tablet—many of GarageBand’s elements would be fiddly at best on the likes of a Galaxy Tab.

It’s when you start wanting to create something a bit more customised, a bit more you, that GarageBand for iPad’s limitations become clearer. One of the most evident is the amount of time it takes to audition instruments, and this can’t be done live while a song plays (unlike in NanoStudio), meaning it takes a while to work your way through instruments. Most of the other shortcomings centre around editing. Fire up a software instrument and you can play a virtual keyboard to enter song data into the iPad. Usefully, you can overdub, in order to get more complex tunes down with less effort, or to work up drum patterns. What you then can’t do is make any changes to your performance. At most, you can crop and copy audio regions and correct dodgy timing by assigning quantising to a track. But you can’t double-tap on an audio region and then edit the underlying MIDI data—for that, you must export your track to GarageBand for Mac, although you cannot then transfer it back to the iPad. The lack of pattern and note editing also makes it impossible to ‘rescue’ manual drum tracks. Apple has made a lot of the iPad’s accelerometer being used to define instrument expression—in other words, hit a virtual instrument harder and it plays louder. In practice, this feature simply isn’t accurate nor consistent—at least on an iPad 1—meaning it’s best disabled. Cleverly, Apple doesn’t enable you to disable the accelerometer when working with drum instruments, meaning you end up with drum tracks that are all over the place and you don’t have any way of correcting them later. Bizarrely, it’s also not possible to delete or rearrange tracks in the track viewer—at most, you can assign a new instrument to a track. (@daveinthecloud notes on Twitter you tap a selected track’s instrument icon to access Delete and can tag-drag to rearrange. I therefore suggest that this isn’t optimal and that Apple should state these controls are available when you tap the (?) icon.)

Slamming my own brakes on, it’s worth remembering that this is GarageBand for iPad 1.0. This is not a mature app, but Apple’s next attempt to figure out what it’s tablet’s good for. As Marco Arment says in Moving on from iPad ‘office productivity’ apps, the tablet’s proven sub-optimal for office-oriented productivity, and so GarageBand and iMovie could be the company testing the water, to see how its device fares for casual media creation. Certainly, while a lot of thought’s (rightly) gone into the virtual instrument interfaces, the track interface feels half-baked, like Apple simply didn’t have time to think things through. And given that both NanoStudio and BeatMaker offer superior editing to GarageBand—and on the smaller screen of the iPhone—I remain hopeful that GarageBand will follow suit. Even then, I think it’s unlikely I’d use it for full songs, but it would be an obvious choice to kick things off with, due to its compatibility with the desktop version. It’s also worth noting that if you’re a guitarist, GarageBand for iPad’s toolset will cause you fewer problems, since it’s fine for recording live audio and making basic crops and copies. (The set of amps and stomp-boxes is also excellent, especially for a product that’s so inexpensive.) You’ll likely have to make do with loops or smart drums for drumbeats, but otherwise you may find this the best app you’ve ever bought.

For others, though, GarageBand for iPad is in the main what many people inaccurately call its desktop cousin: a toy. Make no mistake: it’s a great toy, one that is highly recommended and that is most definitely worth its low price-tag. What GarageBand for iPad currently struggles at is in being a tool for musicians (bar guitarists), but given that the app is currently selling like hot cakes, I can’t imagine things staying this way for long.

March 14, 2011. Read more in: Apple, Music, Opinions, Reviews, Technology

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The best apps and games to buy for your iPad

So you’re sitting there with your new iPad and you’ve got all you possibly can out of the built-in apps. What next? Well, I’ve spent most of my life over the past two weeks going through a massive number of iPad apps. Reviews of these are slowly making their way to iPhoneTiny.com (Twitter users might like to follow @iphonetiny), but the best have been compiled in a series of articles for TechRadar.

Visit the links below to find out the very best apps you can download for your iPad:

May 28, 2010. Read more in: Apple, Reviews, Technology

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