Monument Valley

Monument Valley

My latest iOS gaming obsession is Monument Valley, a new platformer inspired by the art of M.C. Escher. You play as Ida, a silent princess who must navigate a series of seemingly impossible architecture by solving puzzles and avoiding the Crow People and other strange inhabitants.

Each level presents a structure that looks impossible to traverse at first, but by moving or rotating sections of the environment, you can alter these optical illusions to create a path where none existed before. Watch the official trailer and you'll see what I mean.

Monument Valley - 2

As noted in a behind-the-scenes video, every stage is like a different work of art, beautiful enough to be printed out and hung on a wall. As you interact with Ida's world, you are greeted with pleasant sound effects and music, so I recommend playing with headphones for the best experience. (I wonder if the developers plan to release the soundtrack, because I would buy it.)

Monument Valley is one of the most gorgeous and thoughtfully considered games I've seen on iOS, one that answers the question, "Are video games art?" with a resounding yes! And it's only $4, so there's no reason not to treat yourself to one of the best iOS games of 2014.

Fantastical 2 for iPad Released

Fantastical 2 has been my calendar app of choice for the past few months. My one quibble so far has been that it was only designed for iPhone. I have used it on my iPad in 2x mode, but it has never been a great experience.

That all changed with today's release of Fantastical 2 for iPad. All of Fantastical's key features—including the DayTicker and its ability to understand natural language input—have been carried over from the iPhone version. The main difference is that the iPad app takes full advantage of the larger screen to display more information at once. It's more than a basic calendar; it's a detailed dashboard for my schedule.

As it stands now, the iPhone version is where I will quickly create new events, and the iPad version is what I'll use to manage and review existing events. I recommend picking up both if you haven't already done so, especially since the iPad app is on sale for $10, a discount of 33%.

Diet Coda 1.5

Diet Coda is the code-editing app to get if you have to maintain websites from your iPad, and it just updated with some great new features. Files can now be stored locally and synced with Dropbox, and the app now supports a slew of new syntaxes, including Markdown. It's a $20 app, so only serious coders need apply.

The Best Pinboard App for iOS

Shawn Blanc invited me to write about iOS Pinboard apps for The Sweet Setup. It's a pretty crowded market these days, but after thoroughly testing the various Pinboard apps out there, we selected Pushpin as our top pick in the end. A very close second went to Pinswift.

Anyway, go check out the article and hit me up on Twitter to let me know what you think!

RealMac Wants to Make Things Right

Remember when RealMac came out with a new, separate version of Clear a while back, and it caused a bunch of confusion and frustration with their customers?

Well, now they want to clear the air (see what I did there?) once and for all, by going back to a single, universal version of the app and making it temporarily free so that everyone can easily migrate over:

“As Apple doesn’t offer a way to migrate users between copies of an app, we’re going to make Clear free for 24 hours so owners of Clear+ can move to the correct version free of charge.

To make sure as many people as possible can move to Clear, we’re going to do this twice in the next few weeks. We know this is risky - we rely on the income from Clear to run our small, independent company - and so whilst this was by no means an easy decision for us to make, we simply want to do the right thing for you, our customers.”


My buddy Andrew J. Clark (of The Menu Bar fame) just released his gorgeous, first-ever iPhone app, Numerical.

The tagline for the app is "A Calculator Without Equal", which is not only clever from a marketing perspective, but also true because the app does not have an 'equals' button. It simply calculates answers on-the-fly, and lets you use swipe gestures to undo, redo, or archive an answer for later reference.

The app also has a certain charm to it, with helpful animations and pleasant sound effects throughout (you can see it in action here). It will even give useful error messages, like if you try to divide by zero.

Andrew obviously spent a lot of time considering the little details, and Numerical has now replaced the stock iOS calculator app for me. The app is only $3, so go get it and support a brilliant guy.

Chicago Avenue Moon

Chicago Avenue Moon

Thanks to my buddy Nate Boateng, I discovered an awesome new app called Chicago Avenue Moon. As the developer describes it:

“Chicago Avenue Moon is a responsive, generative music app that gathers a set of variables including date, time, phase of the moon, and GPS location, and uses that data to determine how its music unfolds, in real-time. The piece is intended for a listener in motion, whose route and speed affect the composition. Composer Joshua Dumas wrote 1000 brief musical phrases which the app manipulates, sequences, and layers to create trillions and trillions of variations, a unique experience with every listen.

He imagines the piece as a personalized soundtrack for strangers’ mundanities—an effort to help re-enchant a person’s daily commute, trip to the laundromat, or evening jog.”

As I just wrote about on Tools & Toys, the music this app generates is very akin to the Journey game soundtrack, which I love it for.

Chicago Avenue Moon is only $1 right now, and will go up to $2 after Feb 11th. I highly recommend checking it out. If nothing else, it will totally change the way you experience a nighttime walk.

MacStories' Guide to Automating iOS with URL Schemes and Drafts Actions

MacStories invited Alex Guyot to write a gigantic guide to understanding iOS automation:

“This article will attempt to centralize all of the necessary information for a complete beginner to quickly and easily go from little to no prior knowledge of the subject to being able to understand and build their own complex workflows with Drafts and URL actions. I will only be focusing on Drafts here, but the skills learned throughout this guide should be easily transferable to other apps.”

It doesn't get much more nerdy (or awesome) than this, folks. Keep it bookmarked and study up.

iOS App Store's Best of 2013

Apple just unveiled their 2013 Best-Of charts, encompassing all the types of media found on the iTunes Store (music, movies, tv shows, apps, books, and podcasts). Each category is interesting enough to check out, but being the nerd I am, I was mainly interested in the App Store results.

Some highlights that particularly caught my attention:

  • VSCO Cam was runner-up for iPhone App of the Year, and deservedly so. It's the only photo editor I need, and so it's the only one I've been using for the last several months.

  • Ridiculous Fishing received iPhone Game of the Year. This was also very well-deserved, because it's easily one of the most entertaining games I've ever played on iOS. Maybe on any console. The music alone is so good, I even bought the soundtrack.

  • Editorial was mentioned as one of the top 'Smart Productivity' apps. Can't hit the nail much harder on the head than that. I know that my own productivity and overall writing workflow have gotten a huge boost from this app.

  • Basil, a recipe manager for iPad developed by Kyle Baxter, made it into the 'Beautiful Cookbooks' section. Nice going, Kyle!

Many congratulations to all the developers – of which there are way more than I could comfortably list here – who got into top lists in their respective categories. It's been another exciting year for iOS apps, and I'm looking forward to what's in store for 2014.

App Store Review Prompts

It looks like iOS App Store review prompts (i.e. the popups that say something to the effect of, "Like our app? Go rate it five stars!") are back in the public eye. Several people have been debating the pros and cons of this approach to garner reviews, and I'd like to give my two cents.

The whole discussion kicked off when Gruber linked to a moderately amusing Tumblr called Eff Your Review, which features screenshots of iOS apps badgering users to leave (ostensibly positive) app reviews. He added:

I’ve long considered a public campaign against this particular practice, wherein I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

Cabel Sasser thought this tactic might be a bit too far:

That said, ‘give apps that do this 1 star’ suggestion bummed me out — stoops to the level of ’1 star until you add X feature!’

And last night, Daniel Jalkut weighed in on the matter:

It’s smart to take it as given that something should be done to encourage users to leave positive ratings and reviews. That’s good business sense. But also take it as given that the farther you tread in the direction of badgering and disrespecting users, the more you chip away at the meaningful non-monetary benefits listed above.

Daniel is absolutely right. Developers have every incentive for using these prompts, and little immediate reason not to, unless swaths of users take Gruber's advice and leave one-star reviews about it.

Like any nuanced discussion, there is no single answer to the problem. Neither side – developer or customer – is necessarily in the right or wrong here. However, I think it could be helpful to lay down some guidelines for the people on either side of the equation. I can't speak for everyone, but I think the following principles would be a good starting point.

Rules for App Developers

  • Let us opt out. If you simply must have an App Store review prompt in your app, be sure to give users the chance to say "no thanks". Don't pull the kind of bullshit where the only options are "yes" and "remind me later". That's scummy and you know it.

  • Respect the users' wishes. If a customer chooses to opt out of leaving a review, your app had better not continue prompting them about it afterward. I can live with a one-time popup, but there are some apps that ignore opt-out requests and that is definitely not okay with me. It might even be a good idea to respect opt-outs across app updates, if possible. If I didn't want to review your app two updates ago, I'm no more likely to do so today.

  • Remember that your app isn't the only one prompting for reviews. Users have to deal with this prompt in a wide variety of apps all the time, even multiple times a day depending on which apps they're using and which ones have updated recently. What you might see as a minor hiccup in the user's workflow is something they may see as a constant annoyance from all the apps they've bought.

Rules for Users

  • Try to be a little more understanding. At the end of the day, most developers are simply trying to make a living from their work. In all likelihood, all but a few of them would rather leave you alone to enjoy their app, but let's face it: App Store ratings can make or break entire businesses. It's hard to blame them for encouraging people to help out a little.

  • Go ahead and leave a review, even without being prompted. If a higher percentage of users would leave reviews of their own volition, developers wouldn't feel the need to badger them about it. If you have an app that you love and use all the time, do them a favor and give them a little boost on the App Store so they can continue providing you an awesome experience.

  • Don't hand out 1-star reviews lightly. This is where I disagree with Gruber's suggestion. As annoying as these popups might be, I don't think it's fair to give an otherwise great app the lowest possible rating. For example, I absolutely love Day One but even it uses the review prompt. I wouldn't dream of giving it a one-star rating just for that, it's too cruel.

    I think people are often far too quick to hand out awful ratings just because of a single "missing" feature or other small annoyance. The one exception I would make in this case would be for apps that ignore opt-outs, or fail to provide them altogether.

* * *

While there is room for improvement on both sides of the aisle, my main wish is for each side to be courteous to the other. I don't think that's too much to ask for.

As a writer, my goal is to inspire others to be more creative and do their best work. If my writing has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider supporting this site with a modest donation or by signing up for the $3/month membership subscription.

'Designing Great App Store Screenshots'

Dan Counsell of Realmac Software explains why it's so important for iOS app developers to use good screenshots:

“The simple fact is that a customer’s decision on whether they will download an app is mainly based on the icon, rating and screenshots. The name of the app and description [are] secondary, and most of the time not even taken into account. Potential customers look at these elements to try and work out if the app is worth their time and money, and this all happens in a matter of seconds.”

He goes on to give some excellent tips that may help them get a leg up on the competition. The bit about using all five screenshot slots is probably the easiest one to adhere to, and sadly there are developers out there too lazy to do even that much.

iOS 7 and Screenshot Status Bars

In some iOS app reviews – including my own – you may notice that the screenshots used throughout have clearly been taken at different times, with varying battery charges displayed between them. Not ideal.

A few days ago, Dr. Drang decided to take a crack at fixing these status bars so that they all match one another, not with a standalone app but with a clever Python script. Naturally, Federico Viticci started adapting the script to be used with the iOS app Pythonista so it would be possible to use it directly from within iOS rather than depending on a Mac app like Status Magic.

Now, Drang has posted the improved versions of both scripts for everyone to use. Disclaimer: before the iOS-only one can work, it requires that four status bar images be added to the OS via the hidden file system. Once it's set up though, it should theoretically work beautifully.

I'll be giving it a try myself soon, maybe next week since I'll be out of town again this weekend — not for a vacation this time though, but to assist my wife as she takes some of her Irish dance students to a competition in Illinois.

iOS 7 Keyboard Shortcuts

Federico Viticci of Macstories is compiling a list of new external keyboard shortcuts that work with iOS 7. As someone who primarily works with an iPad and a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, I can attest that some of these shortcuts are daily lifesavers for me.

Some others that have already been supported for a while and that I use all the time are these basic text-selection shortcuts:

  • CMD+A: Select all
  • CMD+C: Copy
  • CMD+V: Paste

Review: Pocket Casts 4 for iOS 7

Review: Pocket Casts 4 for iOS 7

If someone had told me a month ago that Pocket Casts was about to usurp Instacast's spot on my iOS dock, I would have looked at them like they were crazy.

For as long as I could remember, Instacast was the podcast app that I felt provided the best overall experience on the App Store, and the one I recommended to everyone else who asked. But as it turns out, Instacast's recent 4.0 update sadly resulted in a step backwards in usability. I talked about this a bit in my recent article about the state of podcast apps on iOS 7:

“The playback controls cover up some of the podcast artwork, the advanced toolbar […] can no longer be hidden, and the cloud sync service no longer seems to work properly.”

Replacing an app on my dock is a pretty rare occurrence since I'm picky about what gets put there in the first place, but Instacast just hasn't been cutting it for me anymore. And so, I found myself doing something I never expected: I decided to give Pocket Casts another shot.

iOS 7 and the State of Podcast Apps

 There was a period of time – between early 2011 and about two weeks ago – when I would tell anyone within hearing distance that Instacast was easily the best podcast app for iOS. No doubt about it.

Oh, I'd tried all the big names at some time or another, of course — Pocket Casts,DowncastStitcher Radio, and even Apple's own Podcasts. Though each was great in its own way, something kept me coming back to Instacast time and time again.

It was super easy to use, my subscriptions were synced between my iPhone and iPad with almost no issues1, and of course, it was easy on the eyes. In my mind, the other competitors had lost this battle a long time ago. I was an Instacast guy through-and-through.

And then iOS 7 happened.

Review: Simplenote for iOS 7

Review: Simplenote for iOS 7

 Ever since sometime in 2008, I've been a user and ardent fan of Evernote. Over the years, it's been the place where I've dumped just about everything I possibly can — interesting articles from the web, recipes, tutorials, project ideas, blog drafts, purchase receipts, shopping lists, inventories, gift ideas, bits of inspiration…the list goes on and on.

It was my Everything Bucket — my external brain. And for a while, it was a pretty good one.