Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

I just bought a subscription to Cloak VPN

It’s that time of year. All my services subscriptions are either ready to renew or it’s about time I review what I’m paying for year-round. I currently have three especially problematic services:

  • VPN (hard to connect to, iffy  service, interference with Google),
  • Offsite backup (Java engine that completely destroys my Mac and creates a wind tunnel — I’ll probably be switching to Backblaze soon), and
  • An Internet provider whose service degrades if more than three people look at my site at once (I’ve heard good things about Digital Ocean, if you have alternate recs I’d love to hear them).

I’ve been with all three current providers for years and years. As of today, I’ve now managed to ditch at least one of them. Today, I threw my credit card at Cloak VPN. I’ve been testing the service for the last week and I’m hooked.

It’s a very Apple-aware iOS-designed provider. (I haven’t used the OS X component because my daughter, as you might have read here, has appropriated my laptop so I’m currently laptopless.) Most importantly, the service just works. When I connect to an untrusted WiFi network, the VPN service automatically switches on. When I’m home to my recognized WiFi, it switches off. Cell service is automatically trusted as a default setting.

In my daily life, I’m surrounded by attwifi and xfinitywifi hotspots. Now, my iPad knows that it can automatically connect to these and switch on my VPN cloak. Yesterday, as I was sitting at the car shop, I suddenly noticed that my iPhone was getting unusually good response speeds. Turns out that it had connected to a recognized big-name hotspot provider and sure enough, cloak was already there and protecting me.

This morning, Cloak got my money.

Service plans start from $2.99/month for 5GB bandwidth but if you consume a lot of data, for example with a laptop or at home, there’s an unlimited plan at $9.99/month or $99.99/year. The plans extend to an unlimited number of devices but they are one-person each. The company politely requests you don’t buy a single plan for an entire family, company, or dorm.

Review: em notes for Dropbox

I continue to struggle with “work on the go”. Daughter has taken my laptop (although that itself was not an ideal solution), leaving me with just an iPad and keyboard to work with away from the house.

When your brain and fingers are absolutely wired for Emacs editing, it’s a frustrating experience to have to work on the iPad, with all its touching. As a touch-typist, any time I have to move my hands away from the keyboard, it feels like I have failed.

After some searching around App Store, I eventually downloaded a few Emacs-style editors. Of these, em notes (about five bucks) offered the best solution. It links with your Dropbox account and enables you to edit text in an application folder there, ensuring you can load and work on documents and have them available as well in the “real world”, aka anywhere you’re not working on an iPad.

The app by Daisuke Kawamura is not entirely ported to English. Expect to find a few non-localized menu items and help write-ups. Despite that, and despite its Engineer-looking bare-bones design, it represents the best I could find for now although I hold out hope for better.

The fonts are adjustable, it integrates well with the system pasteboard, and you can disable the alternating blue and white lined background which caused me irrational anger. The key bindings are settable to either True Emacs or Mac-style, which is a really nice touch.

I could not get rid of the carriage return symbols which continue to haunt and irritate me and the app doesn’t respond to Command-N to create new files. Argh.

There’s a cool little feature for renaming files that I discovered by accident, by the way. Just tap the name on the navigation bar and it transforms into a name editor. Nice.

If only, the app could export a keyboard for other apps that supported Emacs key entry as well, it would come close to ideal. As it stands em notes isn’t pretty or perfect but I’m glad I forked over the money for it.

A few unrelated points:

While I’m writing about keyboard entry, I’d like to point out how frustrating keyboard-based iOS spotlight is. You can hop into it using Command-Space, just like on a Mac, but it’s slow as anything and if you’re trained to follow that launch with the text you’re searching for, 99% of the time, it will type into the currently active program instead of Spotlight because, yes, Spotlight launch really is that slow.

Once in Spotlight, there’s no way to navigate search results by the keyboard, so you have to reach around and touch the screen to pick the item you’re hunting for. So annoying.

As I was testing text entry today, I realized how far away I  keep my monitors. The relatively small size of the iPad normally doesn’t bother me because I  interact with it much nearer than I would with a proper monitor.

Using a stand and keyboard made it almost unusable for my eyesight because the iPad was pushed back so far. I think this is one of my major issues with laptops in general too. I tried setting up the iPad to my left to get it closer but it just gave me a sore neck.

Review: Crayola Color Studio HD+ and Crayola Light Marker

Print Job

Middle child and I were at the dollar store earlier this week. It’s fall break and we were feeling antsy and rich, with dollars in our pockets and hours to kill.  So we picked up one each of Crayola’s Color Studio HD+ and Light Marker products for a cool buck each (originally priced at $29.99 and co-branded with Griffin).

After returning home and putting these technologies to the test, we quickly figured out why they had been discounted down to a buck each.

They kind of suck.

The Light Marker app (free) uses your iPad’s onboard camera to look at a colored flashlight, letting your little artistic prodigy draw pictures from a foot or two away from the canvas. I’m not joking here. The child waves the flashlight in a dim or dark room, and with luck, manages to “draw” images to the screen.

It’s a terrible user experience and a terrible app.

However, it’s not nearly as bad as the unusable Crayola ColorStudio HD+ with stylus. This “stylus”, believe it or not, works by emitting a high pitched irritating pulsing beep, which the iPad tracks and triangulates to figure out where the “stylus” is on-screen. It also has a hideous color-changing light-show on the side of the “stylus”.

You have to push really hard to get the iPad to recognize the interaction. My daughter is way better at this than I am, and she drew the magnificent inspired art work at the top of the post.

Both apps are shortly going to be trashed.

As for the products, the Light Marker stylus is of moderate use in that it is, in fact, a flashlight, so can be used as a flashlight. The HD “stylus” will be in the trash shortly as it gave me a headache during use and its only good feature seems to be that it…no…never mind. It doesn’t have a good feature.

However, hidden within the packaging of the Light Marker is a damned fine iPad stand that we *loved*. Well worth that $1, this collapsable stand has rubberized footers, a solid build, and can not only be used with the intended iPad, but also pretty much every iDevice and Kindle we could throw at it — regardless of width and case. It folds down to almost nothing but is strong enough to throw into a backpack or purse.

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I’m probably going to go back and buy a few more Light Marker packages because this stand is awesome.

To summarize: both products are crap, not worth $1, let alone $30. Given the ubiquity of $1 tablet styluses at the dollar store, it’s not as if they couldn’t have just packaged a decent toddler-appropriate stylus. This is a perfect example of people trying to be too clever and not at all practical when putting together a product.

However, if you have a Dollar Tree near you, head on over and buy some of these stands. I loved ’em.

Update: Compared to my beloved Two-Hands stands, this is nothing to write home about. Not nearly as stable, won’t move with the device when you pick it up, can’t adjust the angle with exact precision etc. BUT unlike the Two Hands, this cheapy stand can handle Kindle (Two Hands ends are too thin), thick cases (same problem), phones and ipod touches. I’ve been using this all afternoon for plopping testing devices into. If you’re looking for the ultimate iPad stand, stick with the Two Hands. For throwing testing devices onto, this is great.

Review: Ghost Note

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Ghost Note ($9.99, try before you buy) offers a really clever OS X utility. It evaluates the context of your current work state, whether you’re in a web browser, or selecting a file in the Finder, or editing a document in Photoshop, and it enables you to add comments to the context of your work.

For example, the screenshot at this top of this write-up shows a note that only appears when I’m working on new posts. That means I can keep a running log that’s specific to my task, and it’s always ready and available when I’m working in that context.

It’s rare to find a utility that’s both novel and so well thought out.

I had a few qualms in usage, primarily tied to the thinness of the fonts  (mostly due to my weak eyes) but on the whole, I really liked the concept and the implementation. You can change the background of the note for better contrast. I went with yellow over black in the end.

Be aware that you need to install scripts to support some of the context inference. These are added to your Documents folder as Apple Scripts and are mostly harmless. However, context-sensing is incomplete and you may need to add and customize those scripts if your tasks extend beyond those already supported.

The app offers you a one-week trial period. I encourage you to kick its wheels. Nice find!


Life with 6-Plus

As we head into Summer, I’ve had a good long haul with my 6-Plus. I think I’ve had enough hands-on time with it to summarize how I like it. In a word? Meh. This is not one of Apple’s more outstanding products.

It’s not big enough to be used as a tablet so I end up hauling my iPad with my everywhere. It’s too big to be used comfortably as a phone so I keep longing for a smaller handset. In fact, I’d have done much better at this point getting a phone from any provider with voice dialing and an iPad or iPad mini with cellular data.

That’s not to say that there isn’t much to love on the 6 plus. It’s just that you have to look to find it. It’s like hauling around a well-intentioned bumbling moose with you. No matter how nice the moose, it’s still a moose.

Review: Lingon 3

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I’ve been doing a lot of Swift scripting over the past few days and I badly wanted to set some of my scripts up to to run every day and alert me via the notification center.

Swift? Easy. Notification center alert? Done and dusted. Scheduling? Ugh. Cron? Launch daemon? Yuck.

Read On…

Review: Developing for the Apple Watch

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Jeff Kelley’s new book is short. How short? Under a hundred pages short. That’s because it’s part of Pragmatic Programmer’s new Pragmatic exPress series. Developing for the Apple Watch ($11 Ebook $17 Paper, $27 Combo) offers exactly what it says on the label, a quick, focused take on Watch development.

With only 100 pages to worry about, this is a terrific series for getting information to the market quickly and effectively. I love how Pragmatic is pivoting to handle Apple’s quick-change reality.

Read On…

Review: Reflector 2 for Air Play and ChromeCast Mirroring

Apple hasn’t been kind to Squirrels the creators of AirParrot and Reflector. Features of their AirPlay utility apps have now been integrated into OS X and QuickTime. You can natively share your desktop to Apple TV (formerly an AirParrot-only feature) or record iOS screens (just as provided by Reflector).

Of course, Squirrel’s versions do both a little bit better. AirParrot lets you choose which window to share and offers far more control. Reflector in turn enables you to record video from any iOS device, not just the lightning generation. So if you’re looking to use these features from older OS’s and older devices, there’s no better solution out there.

Now Reflector 2 adds further support to the mix. The newly updated app introduces ChromeCast mirroring so you can set your Mac as a cast destination. Unfortunately after kicking the wheels the newly released app seems just a tiny bit away from being ready for prime time.

I tested the mirroring from Chrome on Mac.  On the same Mac, Chrome mirrored flawlessly (albeit pointlessly) but I encountered errors when attempting to cast from a second Mac. My browser saw Reflection 2 and the connection was successfully acknowledged at both ends but no video was ever presented even after rebooting and updating Chrome.

On iOS, I tested using both YouTube and Pandora, both on iPad and iPhone. My branded ChromeCast hardware appeared in each app but not the Reflector 2 destination. (And, sadly, my first generation Kindle Fire was completely useless for any practical purpose of testing. I couldn’t get any apps, even “ChromeCast enabled” ones, to even show the option.) In all cases, my hardware shared a common network with both the hardware and the emulated Reflector 2 ChromeCasts.

And, of course, both devices worked fine with Air Play and Reflector 2. The transmission came through clear and trouble-free as expected.

Reflector 2 is $14.99 and offers a 7-day free trial. I’m hoping updates will quickly sort out the ChromeCast issues I experienced but even without that support, Squirrel’s AirPlay suite are terrific for anyone developing for iOS or presenting and recording demos from their devices.

Review: DailySales for App Sales in your OS X Today view


Developer Raffael Hannemann is a CS student, recipient of a WWDC 2014 scholarship, and has developed DailySales to help developers track their iTunes Connect sales figures. His app integrates into Yosemite’s Today View, which is a nice change from other solutions that offer  stand-alone apps or take up precious menu bar space.

If TUAW were still up and running, DailySales would probably be an app that I’d look at and then, to be honest, pass on reviewing. It’s student-written, student-quality, and full of good intentions but it offers a minimum to distinguish itself from other competing products in the market place. However, TUAW is no longer up and running, I don’t have an editor to be responsible to, and Hanneman’s email made a great pitch.

The set-up procedure is a bit of a pain. You have to move past endless screens of legalese. You have to install Java because this requires Java to use Apple’s Autoinjestion class, rather than scraping the iTunes Connect website. It wasn’t a particularly big burden to get started but it wasn’t turn-the-key-and-get-going either.

But once you get past the painful setup, the app works. I’ve had it running over the weekend and I find that it well matches Hannemann’s initial pitch: that the app is “decent and convenient”.

The presentation is pleasant and unobtrusive.  I do wish I could put in a time-out, like “don’t check more often than once an hour or twice a day”. I have other material I use the Today view for, and having the pane update each time is visually distracting.

The app has failed to update a number of times. On these occasions, it directed me to look at the console for errors: (Click to enlarge.) So it’s not always smooth sailing.

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Like other apps in this arena, Hannemann recommends that you set up a sales-figures only account at iTunes connect for extra security, and your credentials are stored using the system keychain.

All in all, I find Daily Sales to offer a promising beginning to a potentially solid application. It fills a need that many developers encounter, and its $5.99 sales price makes it affordable compared to the competition.

You can learn more about Daily Sales and Hannemann’s other software at his WeAreYeah website.