Wanted: iOS Music Skipping

Apple developed an iOS app for podcast lovers, simply called Podcasts. One handy feature of the app is the ability to skip 15 seconds ahead or 15 seconds behind with the tap of an icon. This has become indispensable for me, as I often like to skip back to hear something I either missed or want to hear again. These skip icons are essential for navigating close to the part of the recording your are listening to. It would be too difficult to use the scrub slider to back up a few seconds in what could be and hour or two of content.

I want the same skip feature to be built in to the iOS Music app as well. When I’m out walking and listening to music, I often find myself wanting to back up a few seconds to hear a particular part of a song again. I admit that the scrub slider is of more use for a single song in comparison to podcasts because the width of the slider represents only 3 or 4 minutes of audio. However, I keep around an old iPhone and use it as a mere iPod when I’m exercising. It’s old and the screen is cracked at the top, right along the area where the time and audio scrubber are displayed. It’s hard for me to be able to glance at the screen and find the head of the slider to navigate within a song. It would be far easier if there were skip icons that I could tap and go forward or back with ease. I don’t understand why they haven’t thought to add them. Make it so.

iOS skip buttons in Podcasts app

Half-Baked iOS 6 Reminders

I began writing about the lackluster Reminders app in iOS 6 more than a week ago, but I thought I’d wait until after the announcement of iOS 7 to see if improvements were on the way. Since iOS 7 won’t be released for a few more months, I’ve decided to proceed with my issues about Reminders.

Reminders feels a little half-baked. Its primary purpose is to remind me about something, but that function is its biggest weakness. Hear me out.

When I get a text message in the Messages app, it will alert me twice if I don’t acknowledge it the first time. If my phone is sitting on the desk in front of me and it lights up with a text message, I can lean over and look at the lock screen and read it. If I don’t need to reply right away, I’ll just let it be. When I do this, the phone doesn’t know that I read the message because I didn’t physically interact with it. A couple of minutes later, it will chime again with the same message to make certain that I saw it. This behavior used to be optional, and I would usually leave that option turned off because I found it slightly bothersome. At some point in the updates to iOS, Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided to remove the ability to disable the second reminder. I find that rather annoying because when I’m driving and the phone is in my pocket, I can’t tell if a second chime is a new message or just the same old one popping back up.

Contrast that behavior with the Reminders app. In Reminders, there is no option whatsoever for a second notification. None! You can’t get a second notification even if you wanted one. I find that to be ridiculous to say the least. Apple is so hell bent on making sure I don’t miss a text message that I can no longer disable second notices on them. But in Reminders, an app whose sole purpose is to remind me about things, I can’t choose to receive multiple notices. That single issue makes me not want to use Reminders at all.

When you go into the system settings and look at the available options for the Reminders app, you’ll notice that there basically are none. The only setting I see is being able to change the default list that future reminders will be added to. That is all. Below that is an empty screen.

I put Reminders on my home screen so that if I do miss an alert about a reminder, I’ll at least notice a red badge on the icon. The problem is that it doesn’t always work. I have missed reminders and later unlocked my phone to find no badge icon at all. Granted, it doesn’t fail every time. It usually works, but I have seen it not work a couple of times, and I have read complaints on online forums from other users registering the same complaint. This degree of unreliability is unacceptable.

Let me give you two examples of how I’ve used Reminders in different situations.

In one instance, I checked out a book from my local library. While I was leaving the library, I set my phone to remind me weeks later on the morning that it was due. I set it to remind me early so that I’d make sure to bring the book with me when I left the house in the morning. In that instance, I didn’t require multiple notifications. At some point during that day I’d notice the reminder and have time to return the book.

In another instance, I was at a party. I set Reminders to remind me to send an important text message to a friend at a specific time during the night. I made sure that my phone was not on vibrate and that Reminders was using the loudest possible sound effect in my library. An hour after I was supposed to send the text message, I happened to pull my phone from my pocket to see a message from the friend I was supposed to have written. I’d completely missed the reminder. I couldn’t hear the notification because it was too noisy at the party, and I somehow didn’t feel my phone vibrate in my pocket either. The popup alert was also obscured by the more recent text message I’d received. This also happened to be an instance where a badge icon did not show a missed notification. The only way I knew I’d missed it (besides my friend writing me) was pulling down the Notification Center and seeing an entry for Reminders that I was supposed to have written them. It was that night that I knew that Reminders wasn’t up to snuff. In hindsight, I suppose I could have gone to the extreme length of setting an alarm in the Clock app, but I never dreamed that such a drastic measure would have been necessary.

Reminders does have a few cool features such as location-based reminders, although I’ve never used that and do not intend to. There is an option to set the priority level of individual reminders, but I can’t tell that the priority level does anything but change the appearance of the reminder in the app itself. I hope that in iOS 7 the Reminders app gets some needed new features and customizations. In its current state, it generally works, but I don’t find it to be entirely useful.

I’m currently experimenting with a third party app called Alarmed. It has a lot more features than Reminders, and allows for endless nagging at intervals as often as every minute! Alarmed lets you set quick reminders or “super reminders,” and has a large library of alert sounds to choose from. I find that it works well and it has positive reviews in the App Store. I’ll continue to use both apps, depending on my individual circumstances, and cross my fingers that Reminders gets an update in iOS 7 later this year that makes it useful for all of my needs.

Temple Run Rocks

A few weeks ago I discovered the mobile game Temple Run, and was hooked immediately. I was actually introduced to this game by my niece. She asked me to play it on her iPod. After playing it, I downloaded it for myself right away. I don’t know how I hadn’t been aware of this game already. It was originally released way back in August 2011. For someone who likes to play games, I can’t believe I hadn’t already been playing this.

Temple Run is a production of Imangi Studios. It is an endless running game. Gameplay begins with your character running from a temple while being chased by some type of demon creatures. From there your character runs endlessly. It’s up to you to tap, swipe, and tilt to avoid obstacles and collect coins and power-ups. As you build your stockpile of collected coins, you are soon able to use them to purchase enhancements to the game. It is the coin collecting that has made the game so addictive for me.

In-app purchases are available for users who want to purchase coins outright, but I don’t see any need to resort to that. I think that the amount of coins and cost of enhancements is paced perfectly to keep one coming back for more. You can eventually unlock everything you need by playing the game normally.

Temple Run gets my highest recommendation. It is one of the most fun mobile games I’ve ever played. It’s available on iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone. It’s ultra-addictive. Since I downloaded the game, I’ve played it hundreds of times. If you haven’t played it yet, you must. Did I mention it is FREE?

Fans of the game will be pleased to know that Temple Run 2 was released in early 2013. I have the sequel and have played it some. The graphics are more polished in the new game. It is still true to the original, but a tad more complex and sports a few different features. Both are great games, but I’m still perfecting my craft on the original, so I’m trying not to get lured in just yet by the flashy newness of Temple Run 2.

Temple Run

Spell-Check: Autocorrecting Diarrhea

Spell-checking has been around since the early days of computing. I can’t say that it has improved much in recent years. Sure, any software can flag misspelled words, but it is the suggested words that are in dire need of help. When I’m typing a word that I don’t exactly know how to spell, I make my best attempt at it and let the computer correct me. The suggested list of possible words often perplexes me. Sometimes I cannot imagine how it arrived at those words.

Before I launch into my rant, I’ll say that Google is the best at figuring out pretty much any word spelling combination. If I can’t find the spelling anywhere else, a simple Google search yields accurate results every time. I’m excluding Google from this rant because that is an Internet search, which I think is a little different than composing text in an application.

I’ll begin with some positive praise. Microsoft Word has the best spell checking and suggestion engine out there. In my experience, no other program comes close. That’s one of the many reasons why I am using Word to write this post, which you are reading now. It doesn’t always give me the precise word I’m looking for, but it still beats the competition.

The Firefox browser added built-in spell checking many versions ago, and it is one of the worst examples of this behavior. Long ago, I gave up composing blog posts in a browser window for this very reason. The Firefox spell checker is just terrible. Sure, it knows when a word isn’t in the dictionary, but determining what that word should be is something it fails at more often than not.

Apple’s iOS operating system is not great at suggesting spellings for misspelled words either. I am often baffled at the words it suggests. Sometimes I think the dictionary engine is powered by nothing more than a random word generator. All too often when I tap a misspelled word, I get two or more completely off the wall suggestions, or even worse, the message that “No replacements found.”

All of this brings me to one tricky word to spell: diarrhea. For some reason I can never spell it right on the first try. I always want to spell it “diaherria” (which is obviously incorrect.) My misspelling is close to the actual word, so it should be a snap for the computer to correct it for me. Not so! Not a single program that I’ve tested this on can get it right.

MS Word thinks it is “diathermia.” Firefox throws up its hands and doesn’t offer any suggestions at all. The Chrome browser thinks it is “diehard.” The Mac OS X dictionary also thinks the word is “diehard.” The suggestion from iOS, however, is by far the worst. That same misspelled word in iOS 6 is autocorrected to “fisheries.” Yes, fisheries! Completely absurd! I could maybe understand that if it had grown accustomed to me typing that word several times in the past, but I’ve never typed that word to my knowledge.

I’m left to think that there must be a deliberate effort to suppress the word diarrhea from being on a suggested words list.

I only used the word diarrhea as a single example. There are many others. I struggle with autocorrect every day, and I’m sure other users do as well. I don’t see why it is so hard to figure out what I am trying to spell.

If anything good has come from writing this post, it’s that I’ve typed the word diarrhea so many times that I’ll probably never forget how to spell it right the first time.

WhatsApp Modern Messaging

There are a vast number of messaging solutions available today. I use many different services to send messages to people. The one that has risen to the top to become my messenger of choice is WhatsApp. Before I tell you what I like about it, let me give a rundown on what I don’t like about some of the other solutions.

Traditional SMS text messaging is an unnecessarily costly money making scam. I also think it’s grown a little stale with its outdated 160 character limitation. Sure you can run over 160 and your message will be sent as two messages, but that gets on peoples nerves.

Most of my contacts use standard text, so to get around the cost issue of purchasing an unlimited text plan, I use my Google Voice number with everyone and text via the GV app (or via the GV website) for free. Google Voice doesn’t support MMS, so there is no photo sharing available (which I have complained about endlessly.)

What bothers me the most about the Google Voice is its iOS app. It is old and clunky. There are some people who like to write three texts back-to-back to convey a single thought. You probably know someone like that. That degree of hammering reveals just how terrible the GV app is. It is terrible! It can’t handle that kind of deluge. In addition, when I’m looking at the current conversation thread and I receive a new message, I have to exit the thread, go back to the conversations area, wait for it to refresh, then tap to go back into the thread to read the new text message. Ridiculous. I grew tired of waiting for Google Voice to step it up with better features, so I started looking elsewhere.

Instant messenger clients are a good solution. AIM, Yahoo, Gchat, and others are all fine systems. Gchat is my favorite in this category because it automatically saves chat archives. Gchat is also the most popular in my circles thanks to it’s tie-in with Gmail. I don’t really have any complaints to make about using IM as a solution over texting. It is better for sure. But not that many people use it or sign in on a regular basis.

Apple’s iMessage is great, but it only works on iOS devices, so a lot of people in my contact list cannot make use of it. That makes it a deal-breaker for the best overall messaging solution. Also, in my experience, iMessage doesn’t insert timestamps into the message thread often enough. I can’t tell when an individual message was sent or often times when an entire conversation was started.

Facebook Messenger is popular these days. It looks good and it works great. My problem with it is that the notifications are spotty. Countless times I’ve fired up the real Facebook app and seen a little red 1 or 2 on the messages icon. No notification had been received from the Messenger app about those mysterious messages. I don’t know the percentage of failure. Perhaps 1 in 10 or 20? It’s often enough that I don’t trust FB Messenger to alert me about every incoming message so I don’t feel like I can rely on it.

WhatsApp does everything that I want. It’s cross-platform, meaning it is on every mobile OS in use today. It’s customizable. I like the font-size options, wallpaper options, and the ability to choose my own notification sound. I like the timestamp attached to every message (unlike iMessage where I simply cannot tell when a message was sent.) I like the little green checkmarks that show each message was 1) Delivered and 2) Read. I like that it shows when the other person is typing and when they were last active. I like that I can set my status upfront, such as “Available” or “Sleeping” or what have you. I like that I can send any kind of media through it and that media can be automatically saved to your camera roll or local storage on your phone. I also like that I can send voice memos to someone on the fly. Group chat is an option as well.

Compared to SMS (which is expensive and limited to 160 characters), GV (which is clunky, also limited to 160 characters, and lacks MMS support), iMessage (not universal), and Facebook Messenger (somewhat unreliable), I think WhatsApp does everything I need and then some. I’ve been using it exclusively with a few friends and it works great. I’m going to try to get more people on board.

One potential downside with WhatsApp is that you are limited to the phone app only. There does not exist a true web-based WhatsApp solution. It’s good to break away from my phone once in a while and message people from my computer where I can write faster with a keyboard. I’d like to see a computer-based option for sending and receiving messages on WhatsApp. Besides that one omission, I think WhatsApp is better than the competition at this point in time.

WhatsApp is 99¢ in the App Store. It is well worth that for a money saving ad-free texting solution. Even better, the app is free at the time of this writing for the 2012 holiday season. Go get it!

Loving Letterpress!

A couple of weeks ago, a simple word game was launched that has taken iOS devices by storm. The game is called Letterpress, and was developed by Loren Brichter of Atebits, the guy who wrote the very popular Tweetie app.

Letterpress is incredibly fun and joyfully addictive. With each turn, you must make a word from the available letter tiles on the game board. Once you do, those tiles become your color. The goal is to control as many tiles on the board with your color as you can. Once the last unclaimed tile is used, the game ends with the winner being the player that holds the majority control of the board. I’ve given a very simplistic explanation of the gameplay, but there is actually a great deal of strategy involved.

Letterpress is free to download. The free version doesn’t have any ads, but does limit the user to two games at a time. A 99¢ in-app purchase removes that limitation, unlocks multiple color themes, and provides a list of words that have already been played in the current game. I think the pricing structure for this app is spot-on, and a model for casual games going forward. Naturally, I paid for the upgrade so I can have multiple games going at once.

I am impressed with the degree of polish in the version 1.0 release of this app. The subtle visual and sound effects are beautifully implemented. I highly recommend that everyone download and play this creative, imaginative game. Prepare to get hooked immediately!

There has been no word of an Android version of Letterpress in development. I’m not sure how that would work across platforms since the game is tied to Apple’s Game Center. Still, it would be nice to be able to play with my friends who are on Android.

As polished as the initial release of the game is, I do have a few feature requests that I’d like to see included in future updates. Those requests are as follows:

  1. There is currently no way to rematch a player when a game has ended. The only way to do so is to go to Game Center, search for their username, add them as a Game Center friend, then request to start a new game. This is a glaring omission and needs to be added as soon as possible.
  2. I would like for the game to tell me how long it has been since my opponent has made a move. When I glance at the list of active games, I can’t tell which have been played recently and which have not. I’d like to know when it’s been several days since my opponent has moved because I want to resign that game and play with someone more attentive.
  3. I would like an overall tally of how many games I’ve won or lost, with a percentage of success on display somewhere. Since this game is so closely tied to Game Center, I am not sure how this would be implemented, but I’d like to see it added to the game in some form.
  4. There are currently no Game Center achievements to unlock in Letterpress. I’m not sure what kind of achievements could be added, but I would like to at least see something there. Perhaps my suggestion above about the number of games won or played could be rolled into an achievement?
  5. There could perhaps be an option to play offline with a friend where the two of you can pass the phone back and forth between moves. This isn’t particularly important to me, but some users have asked for this feature in their App Store reviews, so I think it would be sensible to include it.

It’s worth mentioning that you should enable notifications for Game Center. Make sure those are turned on in the iOS settings. When I first began playing Letterpress I was frustrated that the game didn’t announce when I’d lost. It turned out that I was supposed to be notified but I had the Game Center notifications turned off.

You can follow Atebits and Letterpress on Twitter at: @atebits and @letterpressapp.

A side note: This game has become such a hit, I’d imagine that the folks at Zynga are rubbing their hands thinking, “How can we make a slower, bloated, ad-filled game that looks exactly like this?” Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Letterpress app

iHandy Alarm Clock Pro is Meaningless

With regards to the post I wrote yesterday about the nine minute snooze standard on alarm clocks, I downloaded the Alarm Clock Pro app for my iPhone. This app allows me to set a snooze interval anywhere from 2 minutes up to 30 minutes. I was excited initially, but after a few days of actual usage, I realize that this app, and probably all third party iOS alarm apps, are pointless.

I’m not trying to slam iHandy. The company makes many great apps, several of which I use already. The drawbacks of the Alarm Clock app fall largely in the restrictions of the iOS operating system. The foremost restriction is that when my phone is switched to vibrate, app sounds and notifications are muted. Let me be clear that I’m not necessarily complaining about that fact, because in order to enforce the steadfast rule that apps cannot make audible sounds when the phone is in vibrate mode, exceptions cannot be made. I think that this is an important rule and it needs to remain in place across the board. I need to trust that when I switch my phone to vibrate that it won’t start making sounds arbitrarily. As a result, the Alarm Clock Pro app isn’t able to wake me up when I have my phone switched to vibrate.

The built-in alarm feature in iOS is able to sound alarms aloud even when in vibrate mode. For an alarm, this is essential. Occasionally I’ll take a quick nap in my car over lunch and I rely on the alarm to wake me up. I keep my phone muted at work. I can’t be responsible to remember to flip the vibration switch back to loud just to cater to a single alarm app.

The silenced alarm debacle is a complete deal breaker for me. I tried creating a test alarm with vibration enabled to see what would happen. I expected a prolonged vibration period, such as the case when I receive a call. That didn’t happen. My phone only gave a quick little buzz, with an onscreen message about the alarm. It looked as though I’d received a text message. Like I said, a complete deal breaker.

I have other complaints as well. Alarm Clock Pro can only select from a small list of included alarm sounds. Adding a custom sound file isn’t an option. You are able to set a song in your music library as the alarm sound, but that will only work if you happen to fall asleep with the alarm clock app open in the foreground. Come on! Who is really going to do that? I mean, really.

Also, the Alarm Clock Pro app description boasts that you can shake your phone to snooze the alarm without having to slide to unlock it or tapping the screen. I have tested this twice and it simply does not work. Fail.

At the end of the day, Alarm Clock Pro is an app that really serves no purpose. Sure, it has a pretty display for the clock itself, and even includes weather in the corner, but that is all it is good for. Using it as an actual alarm is something I cannot advise. Don’t do it.

As for me, I’ll stick to using the built-in iOS alarm clock, never minding its unchangeable nine minute snooze.