1. Recommended - Begin

    The last few days have seen quite a few posts unrelated to tech. When you’re publishing a book, that tends to happen. But, as it turns out, one of the tools I’ve been using during that process needs and deserves to be recognized.

    About a month ago, on a recommendation from Ben Brooks and at a sale price, I picked up Begin. Now, I have todo apps—probably too many of them. There are apps that work great for location-based reminders, apps that I downloaded years ago that have long since languished, Apple’s own reminders app, brilliantly designed list apps that just aren’t for me, and on and on. So why start with Begin?

    Number one is always the same: I like exploring new designs and writing about them. Number two is that I was deep in the publication process, a project that could benefit from its own set of reminders and todos, so I went for it.

    I already had a makeshift list in Scrivener. I just needed to port it over, and I was ready to go. Here’s how the experiment has worked out.

    Begin is great for specific, day-to-day todos. There’s one list. It has fields for today and tomorrow (and an uncompleted section hiding below the main screen). You can complete, delay until tomorrow, restore uncompleted items, and delete. And that’s pretty much it. It’s incredibly simple. And there, Begin shines. I needed a running list that I would address every day and throughout the day, for just one project. For that, Begin is almost perfect.

    Some apps deal with priorities on todo items, Begin’s way of managing that is by filing it in Today or Tomorrow and then allowing the user to drag and drop the order. There are no heat maps, no tiers to worry about, and no due date/times.

    Now, on the subject of due times, Begin again excels. The app provides a daily reminder system which sends a push notification at the same, user-defined time. If it is your preference, you can set a “last chance” notification for the app, upping the forced interruptions to a whopping two. I love this feature. For my ordinary reminders, such a system would be terrible. In fact, almost the entire point of regular reminders, for me, is to be notified at specific times throughout the day that I should be doing something that I was likely to forget.

    Begin sees its list (rightly) in a different way. There are things that need doing today, and you’ll be reminded of those at the start of your day (or your decided time). From there, it’s your responsibility to return to the app and check those items off as the day goes on. If you so choose, you get the second reminder before you leave the office or after lunch (or again, whatever time you predetermine).

    It’s refreshing to see an app that works hard to control the amount of times it interrupts the user throughout the day. And for an app that is strongest when users are focusing on a single project, the lack of buzzing distractions will hopefully keep users on task more often and for longer periods. I know it has for me.

    You can download Begin for yourself on the App Store. It’s free with a $0.99 in-app purchase (each) for extended features and bonus themes.

     


  2. Recommended - Overcast

    Much has been said already about Overcast, the new podcast player app from Marco Arment. Out of the gate, I’ll tell you this: I like the apps Marco makes. They tend to solve problems in a way that fits with my mental model, in a style that aligns with my sensibilities. Overcast is much the same in this regard. Additionally I’ve seen comments from people about the release cycle or release machine of big name independent developers like Marco. If this review makes me a cog in the machine, so be it. Think Critical exists as an outlet for me to share the things I like, dislike, find interesting, and think that others will find interesting. If you don’t, my apologies. I call it like I see it.

    First things first. If you listen to podcasts, go download Overcast and give it a try. There’s very little reason not to considering the app is free for its basic functionality—including quick trials of the headline audio features. If nothing else, it will help you to better see the design choices you like best in your personal favorite podcast app.

    Since I have already addressed the app’s pricing, that leaves just three specific design points I’d like to discuss.

    First Run Experience

    When you fire up Overcast for the first time, you’re treated to a smooth and personal setup process that is the second reason I recommend downloading it right now. Not only does it cost nothing but time, getting started with shows and subscriptions in the app is as seamless as I can imagine it being. Right of the bat, you set up an Overcast account, complete with the Skeptics FAQ which I found particularly entertaining. It’s a lighthearted take on the heavy privacy language that software so often presents to users. You can see the dense language if you prefer, but I for one was happy to see a realistically readable version.

    After signup the import process impresses. You get a list of possible podcast players that you might be using, then specific instructions for exporting (for me it was two taps) and you’re off with Overcast. All the imported shows show up, though as far as I can tell, the state of specific episodes (half-played shows start from the beginning) is not preserved.

    Once your subscriptions are imported, the main show and playlist selection screen appears. This is probably the most foreign screen for me as an Instacast user. The mix of text-only playlists and the all shows list with its thumbnails makes the screen seem a bit unfinished. It makes sense to have ended up with this look, but there’s still something about the playlist section that feels hollow.

    From there, most users are likely to end up in the playback screen.

    Playback

    So much of Overcast is (apparently) designed for use in the car. Almost all of my podcast listening happens in the car, and though I avoid using the phone (especially for any kind of messaging), features like play, pause, and skip ahead are welcome in Overcast where buttons are larger, better spaced from other controls, and kept to a minimum number. Some podcast apps fill the playback screen with myriad controls and options, horrible for in-car use. Overcast keeps it simple and clear. For that alone, I’ll be keeping it as my default app.

    Part and parcel of playback are Overcast’s headline features: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. The latter of these excels, again, in the car. Voices are clearer, more present, and more consistent than with the standard sound settings (or even with the spoken word EQ in the iOS settings). The former feature, Smart Speed, is a bit more controversial. Up until Overcast I rarely listened to podcasts with any playback speed modification. Voices sounded rushed, with unpleasing artifacts and an unnatural cadence. Only in the greatest of need did I use these features (though often with my own shows, where I mostly needed to listen for content concerns). With Overcast’s Smart Speed, I’ve tried to listen with the option both on and off, and I honestly prefer all of my favorite shows with Smart Speed on. It’s not that the shows play faster (though they do), they sound better. The feature tightens up dead time, but not by simply cutting it out, which is one reason that the stock speed options for podcasts sound so awful. Smart Speed shortens pauses, but takes into account that negative space is important in conversation. Personally, I’d love a podcast editing app that used the Smart Speed feature as a starting point, a sort of “Magic Edit” to highlight areas ripe for trimming and with suggested trim amounts (but I digress). Unless you’re an absolute purist, Smart Speed is great.

    Typography

    Overcast’s typography is clear while still retaining that Marco Arment personality. Generally it reminds me more of the choices in The Magazine than in Instapaper. The secondary heading used for dates on the main screen seems oddly angular and stilted, with letter spacing that sometimes makes it difficult to read. The primary heading used in show titles is clear and legibile, pleasant to read and quick to recognize. It’s likely that these are the same font, but that the uppercased and differently spaced dates gives them a contrasting feel.

    Overall, this is an excellent 1.0. I’ve noticed some bugs with playlist building (mysteriously vanishing items mostly) and organization, but when it comes to clarity and personality, I’ve yet to see a podcast app that balances the two quite like Overcast. And, more importably for me, it seems to be an app designed with my use cases in mind: mostly listening in the car, appreciative of sound quality and content, but not militant about applying tasteful effects. I’m very interested to see where things go from here. You might be, too. Try it for yourself.

     


  3. Guy English, a guy with some actual game industry experience, on Apple’s new graphics API:

    Metal and the investment Apple’s made in its development and support shows that the company’s now taking gaming very seriously, indeed.

    I hope he’s right. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big supporter of iOS gaming since the beginning. And while casual gaming is great, and keeps iOS in the gaming picture, the more traditionally graphics-intensive titles are what Metal is going to boost the most.

    One of my favorites, Republique, runs on Unity, so I’m hoping for some Metal magic in upcoming episodes. A guy can hope, can’t he?

     


  4. On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: When does marketing become sheer deception? It’s one thing to manipulate the audience in benign ways, getting them excited for a product that the creators are equally or more so excited about. It’s entirely something else when he marketing dictates what will be included in a game or when a game must be shown in order to generate revenue.

    Check it out on ShoutEngine or subscribe in iTunes.

     


  5. The Wrist

    After listening to a recent episode of The Talk Show in which John Gruber and Dave Wiskus discussed the potential future for an iWatch, I started wondering what has pushed the general consensus this far to begin with. We know from sources that Apple has been working with wearable devices and that one of the natural places to start is the wrist. But that’s more or less all we know.

    Then, shortly after Gruber and Wiskus, Casey Liss posted some thoughts addressing an angle similar to my line of thinking. Apple’s products, especially in new markets, tend to bring the baseline features that the audience expects, designed in particular Apple style, with something extra added that very few people anticipate. The iPhone is the mother of all examples for this strategy (see The Prompt’s excellent dissection of the original keynote for more details than most could ever want). There were so many features that completely surprised huge segments of the audience. Things like accelerometer rotation, proximity detection, Mac OS X, that scrolling, and on and on.

    The iPad had many of the same features as the iPhone, which was the expected part of the announcement. The surprise? The price, for one. But it wasn’t only that. The presenters spent a large portion of the keynote demonstrating how this little slate of aluminum and glass could accomplish productivity tasks in an intuitive way (though they dropped the ball on text-selection and document management). Very few Apple watchers foresaw a (truly) ten-hour tablet that not only ran iOS but did so with an eye on instigating the post-PC movement and did that starting at $500.

    I could continue with examples from across the Apple history board (iPod, iTunes, TiBook, iMac, OS X, Cylindrical Mac Pro), but the two iOS devices give us enough to understand the picture as it stands today for wearables, and the seemingly inevitable iWatch. Apple’s greatest hits do something surprising, and their primary use cases tend to be different from the expected. The iPhone is for most people clearly not a phone but a tiny computer with a calls feature. The iPad is a great media device with the potential to replace the primary computer of those who don’t require advanced features (I personally have several friends and family members who only use iPads while their PC’s gather dust) all at the price of a Windows laptop. So how does a wearable fit this picture?

    To come to any reasonable conclusion, we have to ask what this device will be for? It’s unlikely to replace the smartphone. UI and current interaction technology preclude this. Our fingers are too big, voice is too inaccurate and distracting to others, and a physical control (think modern day click-wheel) would seem dated regardless of functionality. However, if it doesn’t replace the smartphone, what does it do? The Android solution is that these things are little notification buzzers that dangle from your arm, making glances at incoming information quicker and easier.

    This could be the center of a good product if the notifications carried more weight than those on current smartphones. Imagine a screen (LCD or a more static technology) that only showed the most important of your notifications. Our phones have dozens (sometimes hundreds) of notifications that build up over the course of the day. Do we need to look at all of them? No. Do we tend to look at all of them? No. In that case, it stands to reason that surfacing important notifications on a wearable would make sense (think missing a flight, an important meeting, or an insulin shot rather than something like your most recent @ reply on Twitter). Unfortunately, the software and human reality of choosing what is important is an incredibly difficult problem to solve. Unless this is Apple’s surprise, it seems that technology precludes wearables as critical notifications devices.

    One of my examples—and with HealthKit, the example that’s on many minds these days—concerns monitoring health, fitness, and medical information. Sensors to do such monitoring are either too invasive or too sensitive to be reliable all day on a wrist device. It isn’t out of the question (in fact, I would be surprised if Apple released a wearable that didn’t address health in some way) but true medical monitoring is better left to the pros, at least as the tech stands today.

    If it isn’t notifications and it isn’t health, then what is it that this new device will do or allow us to do that isn’t blatantly obvious? Payments could certainly be easier on a device that is already out and accessible. Though few of us need to shave a couple seconds off a notification check, many have felt the pressure of fiddling with our phones in line at a coffee shop. It’s a bit like being the guy who pays cash in those credit card commercials. And though one usually has to reach into a pocket for a credit card, there’s no unlocking, fingerprinting, app finding, navigating, and so on with a card. Between some of Apple’s new proximity features and a wearable, the payment process could be smoothed considerably.

    Or, perhaps the device is passive, hanging there from your wrist “listening” for a number of factors that could aid your smartphone or tablet or Mac to show useful data later. If so, it stands to reason that price would again (as with the iPad) need to be a major factor. For a passive device with no outward dazzle to be successful, customers would need to impulse buy it in addition to their new phones, tablets, etc.

    In any case, the Android version of a smartwatch looks less and less like something Apple would bring to market. Even so, there’s a lot of noise around Apple and wearables in general, this post included. For those who like to speculate, and there are a great many of us, the most interesting question is not what Apple’s wearable will do but what Apple’s wearable will do that we don’t expect?