1. On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Sometimes the best topics come stright from the news of the day. This week’s episode does just that. CryEngine on SteamOS, a Crisis for the console market, and a handful of PC and iOS games fill out the discussion.

    Check it out at DYHAMB? or subscribe in iTunes.


  2. Consider: Checkmark 2

    A couple of weeks ago, the usual suspects were abuzz with a new app. I’ve made it a point to take a look at releases like these, as they often come with a lot of fanfare, praise, and even a few pledges to replace coveted home screen real estate. This time, the app is Checkmark 2, a to-do list with focus on location-based reminders.

    First off, and honestly the bit that I think garners Checkmark a place in lists like these to begin with, is the visual design. Animations are smooth and lively; check circles (instead of boxes) swivel like spun coins, strikethrough lines sweep across the item cell, colors shift subtly to indicate state. By most measures the app is beautiful. But that isn’t enough. This is a to-do app. And in such a popular category, the bar is already high.

    Next is Checkmark’s most impressive feature. Location-based reminders. Regardless of the rest of the app, and the rest of this review, no other app I’ve used even comes close here. In fact, were Apple to add the same functionality to its own reminders app, I can think of no greater single way that they could improve it. Here, the most important feature is the ability to add a location by dropping a pin. It’s quick, easy, and so brilliantly obvious that I find it difficult to understand why Apple hasn’t been doing it this way all along. On top of that, when you add a location, a selector comes up at the bottom of the screen indicating the size of the geofencing area. I found this incredibly useful when needing a reminder for “when I get into town.” Location based reminders are the reason I’m still using Checkmark and why I will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

    I do have a couple of criticisms, however. There’s an issue (or at least I’m assuming that it isn’t intended) where the map view readjusts to a too-near zoom level when selecting the area for a new location. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but one that users will encounter frequently when first starting out with the app. The more locations added, the more unwanted zooms and re-zooms.

    The second issue I had was with location groups, a great feature with which you can select several related locations that trigger a single reminder item. The best example is the grocery store. There are likely several in your town or city, and all of them likely sell milk or eggs or whatever it is you need to pick up. With groups, Checkmark will remind you when you arrive at any store that’s grouped into that category.

    My issue was with understanding this functionality without having read a review like this one. In the app, location groups appear to be a way that you can organize your locations. For instance, I tried to drag and drop all the locations in my town into one group labeled with the town’s name. Needless to say, the behavior didn’t align with my mental model. A hint, triggered upon first use, would go a long way in remedying this situation; or, if that seems too ham-fisted, a visual cue that suggests these items will trigger together rather be grouped in a folder, sub-folder sort of way.

    Lastly, I find myself jumping around in the app too much. Most of my time is spent navigating from one section to the next when it should be a simple, drop in, check an item, drop out process (a recent update greatly improves this).

    So, I’ve labeled this post with consider rather than recommended not because I think Checkmark isn’t worth your time or money. On the contrary, it is. Just be sure you know what you’re getting: a beautiful app, like most apps that hit the usual Mac nerd blogs, but one that’s a bit high-maintenance for certain situations. If location based reminders are a staple for you, it’s easily worth the purchase price.

    For my everyday reminders, I’ll still be using Fantastical.

    You can purchase either (or both) Checkmark 2 or Fantastical 2 for $2.99 and $4.99, respectively, on the App Store.


  3. Linus Edwards:

    I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy.

    A great article and idea from Linus, but I found myself shaking my head by the end, not because I think it’s a bad argument (I don’t, of course) but because I see this “churn” as a blessing rather than a problem.

    It reminds me of something Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford address:

    Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

    As it is with life, so it is with software. The cruft of the old is swept away by the new and fresh, “unbruised” as Shakespeare might have said and unburdened by the cares of the past.

    But unlike life, at least unlike human life, software evolves at breakneck speed. The accruing complexity of an app like Castro or an operating system like iOS, is near enough to the mistakes of its forebears to learn from them.

    Simplified writing apps (about which I know a little) tend to add complexity just like any other app does. But not even the most complicated and poorly managed will ever end up with the monstrosity that is Word’s Ribbon Interface. And even though my guess would be that most of Microsoft’s designers hate the Ribbon just as much, they are faced with being the crufty and old. Their customers would never allow even a mild simplification, let alone the steps necessary to make Word into a pleasant user experience. Look no further than Windows 8 (and furthermore 8.1) for your evidence.

    It took the compound complexity of Windows and OS X to spur the development of iOS (and Windows Phone). Designers must follow the branches of the complicated in order to create the essential versions that come later.


  4. Ben Brooks:

    The answer to what immediate loss Apple suffered seems pretty obvious to me: the reality distortion field is gone.

    It’s not just gone, it’s been obliterated.

    I don’t always agree with Brooks, but when I do, it’s bells ringing, full chorus agreement. This is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic of post-Jobs Apple.


  5. Recommended: OmniOutliner 4

    When I’m not writing this site or teaching high school students, a large portion of my time is given over to fiction. After several years’ work, I have a novel (possibly two, depending on what one considers appropriate length) which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the last six months or so.

    In writing said novel, I primarily used three1 applications. Two of these I could hardly consider writing another book without. One is Scrivener. No review I could write would do that program justice. Let it suffice to say that Scrivener is the tool for serious writers. It has a significant learning curve, but the capabilities are well worth the investment of time and laughably small (relative to its utility) amount of money.

    The second app essential to my fiction writing process is OmniOutliner. And though Scrivener has an outline function that I also use, sometimes a tool built for a specific task is just the right choice no matter how good your all-purpose tool is. With the recent release of OmniOutliner 4, now seems like a great time to give a recommendation.

    Some minds think linearly while others are more spatial. I’m a linear thinker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely find OmniOutliner an indispensable application. Take a look at the last piece of fiction you wrote. Sure enough, there’s likely a timeline in the notes. Whether it came into being as the words flowed onto the page or was painstakingly constructed before the drafting process began, every story has a point A from which to begin and a point B at which to end. OmniOutliner helps writers plan the spaces between.

    Essentially, OmniOutliner is a program that creates topics and subtopics. Like most well-made software, it boils down easily to its primary elements. Why would you want a tool that seemingly does so little? Well, as ever, it’s all in the details.

    Navigating lists and topics happens quickly and fluidly. The new version leverages many of the graphical bells and whistles of modern OS X applications, though never just for the sake of the flourish. Sub categories slide in and out of place, aiding the user in visualizing hierarchy and order. Controls for customizing the look and feel of each item and sub-item do everything from color code for organization to stylize for print or electronic publication.

    The entire list system is drag and drop friendly. Just click an item and place it anywhere within the outline at any hierarchical level. In fiction, this is an incredibly useful feature. For every planned story beat, a half-dozen more sprout up as the characters move through their journeys. In such cases, a quick drag and drop reorders the events and helps to visualize areas of the story that drag or are unnecessary. Sort, resort, collapse, expand. Everything is smooth and serves the purpose of the writer.

    OmniOutliner surprises as note-taking application as well. Items can even be assigned check boxes for task-oriented users. In addition, any list item can take on an attachment: an image if you happen to have a photo or video to take the place of a description, even an audio note recorded on the device or attached from elsewhere. Personally, my outlines are text only, but the app allows much to be done by those who would utilize all of its features.

    And though it’s been a pleasure to use, and a tool I’d rather not write without any time soon, there are some shortcomings. The Omni Group’s applications tend to stay fairly close to the Apple defaults; Outliner is no exception. Unfortunately that means window placement is only stored and refreshed if the user has opted to restore all windows from the previous session in the OS preferences.

    I use OmniOutliner for fiction primarily, but I also have a handful of documents that I use in my job as a teacher. Restoring from last session is useless for me, causing far more grief than convenience. So I turn it off. Then, when the weekends come along and I have more time, I open up my writing environment (which an Automator script handles as there are a number of applications and files). Before version 4.0, I was able to keep my several Outliner windows positioned such that I could easily switch between current story outline, timelines, character spreadsheets (in Numbers), and others. Now that positioning has to be laid out each time I sit down to write. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but a seemingly unnecessary one. Even Apple’s own iWork apps remember window state. It’s an extra inconvenience for the user, and a company as good about user experience design as The Omni Group should recognize this.

    Despite this, and a few other lesser quibbles, OmniOutliner is still an excellent application and downright essential for writers who think and write well in a classic category-sub category format. Pick it up for $49.99 in the Mac App Store2.

    1. The third is Pages, but Scrivener has fully taken over as the app where I do all of my drafting and editing. 

    2. Or for iPad, though I do not own and have not used this version.