Recommended iOS Software

January 10th, 2012 — Wordman

Several members of my extended family have become new iPhone/iPad users and asked me for software recommendations. Since my Mac software recommendations got a fairly positive response (even though they are getting a bit long in the tooth now), I figured I’d make these public.

This list comes with some assumptions. First, it assumes you’ve at least looked at the app store and downloaded something. So I won’t make recommendations about very common, popular stuff. For example, I’m going to assume you don’t need me to tell you about Angry Birds or built-in apps. Secondly, since I don’t know anything about how iOS devices work with non-Mac computers, I’m just going to assume you have a Mac from time to time. Hopefully, this won’t matter a whole lot. Thirdly, some of these applications make use of services, such as Dropbox. For the most part, I assume that, if you don’t know what the service is, that you can follow the provided link to find out, though I do have a section providing more details about certain services towards the end. Oh, also, I think Twitter is pointless, so if you are looking for a recommendation on the coolest Twitter-related apps, I can’t help you.

Universal apps

An iOS app is “universal” if the same binary can be run on devices with different sized screens. In practice, this means that you buy a single app, but it runs well on both the iPhone and the iPad, adapting its appearance based on how much screen it has to use. Generally speaking, if you are trying to choose between two apps and one is universal and the other isn’t, it’s likely the universal app is better written, as making an app universal requires a bit more planning an attention to detail.

1Password Pro

$6. If you are familiar with how 1Password works on the Mac you may be a bit underwhelmed by the iOS version, as it doesn’t integrate with the browser like it does on the desktop (though it does have a built-in browser of its own). The main use of this app on iOS devices is to act as a password protected, encrypted store for small bits of information, like passwords to machines at work or credit card numbers, in a form that can be synced back to a desktop machine. If all that seems intimidating, then give this app a miss (but try the desktop version; it will change how you work on the web and make your browsing a lot safer if you use it correctly.)

1Password

Air Video

$3. Your iOS device has a built in technology called AirPlay that allows you to stream what’s happening on your device to a television via an AppleTV device. AirVideo allows you to go the other direction and stream video from your Mac to the device. Importantly, AirVideo supports a number of video formats that aren’t supported out of the box on iOS, like .avi files.

Air Video

BrickPad

Free. Allows viewing (but not editing) of LDraw files, such as the these mechs, for example. A touch interface for editing these files would be really great, but doesn’t seem to exist yet. Also desperately needs Dropbox integration.

BrickPad

Comics

Free. As people try to figure out the business of digital comics, a lot of different “comic store” apps have been created. It is likely, however, that this one will “win”, because it is the only app that allows you to buy comics from both Marvel and DC (as well as others). While the app is free, comics need to be purchased. On the up side any purchases made can also be read in a web browser at comiXology.

Comics

Death Rally

$1. Yes, you can use your iPad for reading and education and science. But you can also use it to drive virtual cars with missiles or machineguns mounted on them, in a race to the death! This is a retooling of a “classic” PC game. More fun than it probably aught to be.

Death Rally

The Dicenomicon

$5. There are a number of dice rolling apps out there, but this seems to be the only that is more than a toy. Though it is expensive for what it does, it does it well. It supports some of the more esoteric rolling schemes out there (dice pools, Exalted’s rule of 10, FUDGE dice, etc) and supports a high degree of customization (including some limited programability).

The Dicenomicon

DropText

$1. DropText lets you edit text files in your Dropbox (see Services, below). It will not set the world on fire, but is simple, clean and inexpensive. It also knows about various types of syntax highlighting, so you can touch-up code in a bunch of different languages if you like.

DropText

FlightTrackPro

$10. Don’t fly without this, or its less-able-but-cheaper sibling FlightTrack. This app routinely gives me better information about a flight I’m waiting for than is available sitting at the gate. It also integrates with TripIt, which provides a really easy way to get your flight information into the app.

FlightTrackPro

Harmonious

Free. Though more of a toy, people have created some interesting art with this procedural drawing application. Always fund to see math wielded as art.

Harmonious

IMDb

Free. Provides a dedicated interface for the Internet Movie Database, far superior to the experience on the browser.

IMDb

Indigo Touch

Free. If you use a Mac to automate your home, you are probably using a bunch of INSTEON devices and Indigo software to control them. This app links to your Indgio software, allowing you to control your home from your iOS device, via your wifi connection. (It also supports using Prism to function from anywhere on the net, if you choose.)

Indigo Touch

MobileFamilyTree Pro

$15. While this application is a complete genealogy application for iOS, I use it mostly in tandem with MacFamilyTree, with which it syncs over wifi. Both the iOS and the Mac version are pricey, but they have few competitors in terms of features or polish. If you want to know what an “Apple-style UI” looks like for genealogy, this is it.

Mobile Family Tree

Netflix

Free. While not the best app in the world, it is still on the recommend list for its ability to stream video. It’s queue management still leaves quite a bit to be desired, and is better left to their web site, or another app on this list, iQueue (see below). Still, Netflix streaming offers a pretty large (and growing) selection, and this is one of the easiest ways to stream video to your iOS device.

Netflix

Pandora Radio

Free. Pandora provides customizable radio over the internet, using the Music Genome Project to gather music similar to a song or artist you specify. Free streaming radio, unfortunately including advertising.Best over wifi, Pandora works surprisingly well over a 3G connection, though eats through data quotas.

Pandora

PCalc

$10. I’ve had nothing but praise for this calculator since it was System 7-era Mac application, and the iOS version doesn’t disappoint, especially if you like RPN calculators (this one goes both ways). It now has a free little brother, but I find the added features of the Pro version totally worth the money. If you don’t ever deal with hexadecimal, you may not care.

PCalc

Prompt

$8. Panic, Inc. is known for making innovative, quality software with excellent user interface and charging just slightly too much for it. This SSH client fits this model perfectly. If you don’t need SSH on the road (or don’t even know what that means), you don’t need this app. But if you do, this is easily the best of the lot.

Prompt

Remote

Free. You don’t need an AppleTV to use this app, but it helps. Without it, the app lets you control iTunes on a local network (including selection of AirPlay speakers). With the Apple TV, you get much better control over playback and, most important, a decent keyboard to use when entering passwords and such.

Remote

SkySafari3

$3. A number of apps use the compass and gyroscope in iOS devices to turn the device into a “window” that shows you the stars in view. This seems to be the best of them. For one, it is a universal app, which not all of them are. And it seems a bit more streamlined to me. It also comes in three different versions (at three different price points), which let you pick the features you want. (I don’t need telescope control, for example, so I stick to the cheapest one). And, face it, this type of stuff makes a killer demo for an iPad to people that have never used one before.

SkySafari3

Slay

$4. While it lacks snappy (or even modern) graphics and uses only a few simple rules, this turn-based strategy game is fiendishly good, and gets devilishly difficult, with really good AI. About the only thing that would make this game better is multi-player support.

Slay

SportsTap

Free. As I am not a massive sports junky, this app is the only sports related app I use, mostly to view scores and stats for tennis and the NFL, but it covers many other sports as well. I suspect that for true, die-hard fanatics, this app just scratches the surface.

SportsTap

Spyglass

$4. This “augmented reality navigator” is a bit gimmicky, but sure looks cool. It places a “heads-up display” over a live feed from the device’s camera, showing a compass, GPS data, sextant, angle calculator, and a rangefinder. Your device has an array of sensors of various kinds, and this app displays the state of them all. It’s also extremely customizable.

Spyglass

Temple Run

Free. A simple concept, brilliantly executed and instantly explained in the first 30 seconds of play. You run, jump and side to evade the ape-beasts that endlessly nip at your heels. This is also a coin-gathering game (with associated pay-to-buy-more-coins idiocy), but buying coins is not required.

Temple Run

TiVo

Free. If you use a TiVo, just try this app. You may no longer need your remote. Searching for shows and scheduling recordings are much, much easier using this app than TiVo’s on-screen interface. Like the Remote app, one very useful feature is the ability to use the iOS device as a keyboard (to enter, say, your Netflix password).

TiVo

Yummy Browser

Free. Since the free app I have been using to view my bookmarks on delicious no longer is available, I had to find a new one. You’d think there would be a number of universal apps that support delicious, but this appears to be the only one. It also supports Pinboard and seems serviceable. If you need to add bookmarks on your iOS device, the $2 full version of Yummy should do the trick. (Note that this app may not be available on the U.S. Apple store, so the links above go to the Canadian one.)

Yummy Browser

Zagat

$10. This app makes good use of location services to limit searches for restaurants to certain distances from your present location. It also works off-line, containing the Zagats database within the app. It has a gimmicky augmented reality view of restaurants within sight of your camera, and can make reservations in major cities (via OpenTable). I have basically stopped buying Zagat books and use this app instead.

Zagat

Zinio

Free. Magazines are still trying to figure out how to best use iOS devices and you will run into a lot of attempts in the app store. This is the one I think will succeed. What I like most about it is that it collects magazines into a single interface, rather than having to manage one app per magazine (though Apple’s new Newsstand feature may clean this up). It also has titles I actually care about, such as The Economist and ImagineFX. One thing I hate: this and other magazine apps all use closed file formats. I’d be a more enthusiastic digital magazine buyer if this were not the case.

Zinio

Sibling apps

Some applications are available for both the iPhone and the iPad, but as two separate applications, one for each platform. I call these “sibling” apps, and find them irritating. When a developer chooses to release sibling apps, it usually means that they are a) too lazy to figure out how to build a proper universal app or b) greedy. In any case, some of these are good enough to recommend, though usually only for one platform or another. In this section, links will lead to the iPad version unless the iPhone version is particularly recommended. Usually the page to which they lead will contain a link to the other version.

AccuWeather

Free. Of the metric ton of weather applications on iOS, this is the only
one that remains on my devices, mostly because of good looks, decent feature set and costing nothing.
You may care differently about the weather than I do, though, so shop around.

AccuWeather

Bloomberg

Free. One of the earliest financial news/ticker apps for iOS, I’ve stuck with this app mostly because it covers futures, bonds and currency markets as “first class citizens” while others tend to focus on stock markets, with maybe some add-on pages for other markets if you are lucky. (That said, if finviz ever makes an iPad app, I’d probably convert to it immediately.)

Bloomberg

Brushes

$8. Last I looked, there were a number of strong apps—based around painting with your fingers—engaged in a feature-escalation war. In the occasional “shoot-outs” comparing them, this one often comes out on top, though it depends on the focus and what versions were compared. Sadly, it doesn’t come with painting talent.

Brushes

Catan

$5. A faithful (and official) port of the board game Settlers of Catan, a resource management/trading strategy game, to iOS devices. Alas, it does not reproduce the LEGO version of the board.

Catan

Civilization: Revolution

$10. I’ve been known to play a game or two of Civilization. This version started life as a console game, so is greatly simplified from the main line of Civilization games. This simplification and UI serves the iPad very well, though, making games a bit quicker (just one more turn!) and not as micromanaged.

Civilization: Revolution

ComicBookLover

Free. The Comics app mentioned above is great for reading comics available in their store, but not so much for other comics, such as those in .cbz or .cbr formats that you might find in the darker corners of the internet. This application (and its companion Mac app) can handle this type of file better than most.

ComicBookLover

eBay

Free. Although the iPad version has a better interface, the iPhone version is more useful, if only because you are more likely to have your phone with you when some auction randomly ends. Both version offer surprisingly effective browsing and bidding, however.

eBay

Galactica

$2. This badly-named app is a great demo app for the touch interface. Even though there isn’t much to it, you can mess with it for for quite a while. Sort of soothing.

galactica

Geared

$3. This puzzle game is sort of hard to explain, but easy to demonstrate. The idea is to use a small selection of gears to connect a spinning source gear to one or more target gears. This sounds absolutely dreadful when put like that, but it is more fun that it sounds.

Geared

GoodReader

$5. This app is the reason to own an iPad, as far as I’m concerned, but I read a lot of PDF files (mostly role-playing games). It can handle a number of other file types as well, such as Microsoft Office documents, really high resolution images (e.g. maps), HTML archives and so on. It can pull files from many sources, including Dropbox.

GoodReader

Master of Alchemy

$3. In this puzzle game, you direct droplets of liquid onto targets using various kinds of parts to build Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. While similar to games that have gone down this trail before, like The Incredible Machine or Enigmo (both of which are also in the app store), this app offers a bit more polish and punch (and maybe a bit more difficulty as well).

Master of Alchemy

OpenTable

Free. Quite a few apps in the app store exist solely to get you to sign up to their website service. This is the only one that actually worked on me. OpenTable is a useful and easy way to find open times at big-city restaurants, and this app makes it even easier.

OpenTable

Osmos

$5. The ambient music, graphical details, unusual pacing and novel premise of this game provide a mesmerizing experience and a strange sort of serenity, especially on airplanes, using headphones.

Osmos

Shazam

Free. When Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, this app is what he meant. If a song is playing somewhere nearby (restaurant speakers, car radio, tv, etc.) you hit a button to sample several seconds of the song, and the app will tell you which song it is.

Shazam

Sketchbook Pro

$5. Another painting application, which may or may not be better for you than Brushes. Note that several versions of this application exist, at differing feature/price points, so you might find the free version adequate.

Sketchbook Pro

Spider: Bryce Manor

$3. An odd little game where you move a spider through a manor house, spinning webs and eating bugs as you go. This game is entertaining while it lasts, but is a bit too short. Still, you’ve probably never seen a game like this before and it makes good use of the touch interface.

Spider

VLC Remote

$3. This won’t be useful for everyone, but if you have your computer set up to display video on a TV, or use your monitor like a TV, this lets you control one of the more versatile video playback applications, VLC (which can play tons of video formats), from across the room on your iOS device. There is a free version of this app, but it is pretty limited. Three bucks buys you better control, on device file browsing and so on.

VLC Remote

iPad only apps

These apps are created specifically for the iPad, usually because what they do wouldn’t easily fit on the smaller screen of the iPhone.

Circus Ponies Notebook

$30. OK, this app isn’t worth thirty bucks, even if you are a serious note-taker; however, if you ever see it on sale, you might think about it. It allows you to produce “notebooks” where each page can be different. Maybe one page is graph paper with a drawing on it, another is an outline, another is a todo list and so on. Various ways (including Dropbox) of syncing these notebooks to the (also expensive) Mac version. Can also be used to annotate and draw on PDF files.

Circus Ponies Notebook

Friendly Plus

$1. This Facebook client recommendation comes with a caveat (so you might want to try the ad-supported free version before buying): the quality of this app seems to decrease with each revision. Much of that is no doubt due to Facebook changing their APIs all the time (which tends to make features that used to work stop working or disappear entirely), but some of it is on the developer, too. In any case, for the small amount I use Facebook, this provides a better iPad experience than the web UI.

Friendly

iDraw

$9. Easily the best vector drawing (where you make drawings with editable shapes rather than “paint”) on the iPad, especially since it now supports import/export of .svg files. I haven’t used the Mac version of the app, but it also seems nice.

iDraw

Galcon Fusion

$5. A collection of “conquer the galaxy” type games using swarms of little ships. Useful for quick breaks, as each game usually takes under three minutes, so you need to make quick tactical choices. Contains a bunch of single-player variations and supports multi-player games online.

Galcon Fusion

Small World

$7. A great port of the board game of the same name. It’s only flaw is that it doesn’t do a very good job of teaching you to play. It tells you how to work the various bits, but not why. Look to a site like Board Game Geek for tips and strategy. Some of the expansions are available as in-app purchases, but the game plays just fine without them.

Small World

iPhone only apps

These apps are built specifically for the iPhone and iPod Touch. They will run on the iPad, but only in a reduced sized “window” (which can be made horribly twice as large), making the experience so bad that it usually isn’t worth doing. Unlike the iPad-only apps, the reason for these applications being iPhone-only is usually boils down to one of the following:

  1. The developer is too lazy to make a universal app properly.
  2. The developer lacks access to an iPad for testing.
  3. The app offers a custom interface to a web site, and the developer thinks iPad users would be better off just
    using the web site directly.
  4. The app specifically requires features of a phone.
  5. The app was written before the iPad existed, and hasn’t been updated since.

None of these are particularly good reasons, but that seems to be how it works. I miss some of these apps on the iPad more than others.

AccuFuel

$1. Tracks fuel consumption and cost for multiple vehicles. Having used this app for a long time, it is possible that competitors have since surpassed it, but at the time I started using it, it was the best of the bunch.

AccuFuel

Chemical Touch

$1. If you have a pathological need for a detailed periodic table of elements on every smartphone you have ever owned (and who doesn’t), this is the app for you. Simple, fast, good-looking and full of information. There is also a free version without as much data.

Chemical Touch

iQueue

$1. A companion app to the Netflix application. This one allows you to manage your queue, search for new movies and so on. It will also launch the netflix app to stream a selection from your queue. Could use some work (it doesn’t handle steaming of TV series correctly, for example), but servicable.

iQueue

Life Balance

$5. Life Balance is an unusual task manager which syncs via wifi to its desktop counterpart. On the surface, the app looks like a ToDo manager, which it is, but it has mechanisms that help you spread your efforts across tasks and preventing things from getting lost in the shuffle. Takes some getting used to. Their web site explains it better.

Life Balance

Lock ’N’ Roll 2 Pro

$1. This dice matching game improves on the already pretty good original. Fairly easy to learn (once you read the help section), easy to play, holds your attention for quite a lot longer than a lot of more expensive games.

Lock ’N’ Roll 2

Producteev

Free. A client for the Producteev cloud-based to-do management service. By sharing a single account, my wife and I use this service for things like shopping lists, where either of us can update a list and the other immediately sees it.

producteev

RedLaser

Free. Using your phone’s camera, you can take pictures of bar codes and this app will look up the code and find pricing information about the product. It can also scan the funky square bar codes you see popping up everywhere now.

RedLaser

Solebon

$2. Provides 42 different solitaire card games in one slick little package. Demon, Colorado and Eight Off are my favorites. If this was a universal app, it’d be perfect. It could also avoid dealing impossible games better, though this is easier to detect in some games than others.

Solebon

WeightBot

$2. A simple, slick-looking weight tracking application. This was the best of the lot when I first bought it several years ago. It’s possible the state of the art has advanced since (the more expensive A+ Weight Tracker is universal, for example).

WeightBot

White Noise

$2. This application replicates (on an endless or timed loop) sounds with high noise characteristics, like rain on a car rooftop, an oscillating fan, waves on the beach, and so on. It can also generate the various “colors” of noise (pink noise, brown noise, etc.) in addition to white noise. Originally purchased to help me relax at night, this turned out to be a key ingredient for getting my newborn son to go to sleep (the dish washer setting, in particular). Once, in a Manhattan restaurant, this app brought him from fussy and crying to asleep in about 20 seconds.

White Noise

Services

Some of the applications recommended above work with on-line services of one kind or another. You don’t need to use any of these services, but your iOS device becomes a lot more capable if you do.

Since it runs on consumer devices, iOS shows an interface a lot simpler than you’d see on a desktop or laptop. In particular, you don’t have to worry about files and directories and an such on iOS devices. The problem with that is that sometimes you really want to worry about files, at least a little bit, on your device. For example, want to read that PDF from work? How about that eBook you found on the net? Or maybe a movie from a DVD you own? If you ever need to do this, you will quickly find out that transferring files to your device, while possible, is painful. For many of the types of files you might want to put on the device, using a service called Dropbox eliminates (much of) this pain. If you have more than one computer at home, you may already be using Dropbox (and if not, look into it). Dropbox is a vaunted “cloud service” that synchronizes files between your computers. Unlike most such services, it is extremely easy to use. Once you set it up, you’ll barely notice that it is running. The videos on their site to a better job of explaining what it is and how it works, so check those out. Several of the applications below are included specifically because they can access Dropbox, so keep an eye out for them. (Note: all the links to Dropbox in this post are referral links which will provide me with additional space if you follow them to sign up for Dropbox, essentially giving me a reward for advertising for them. If this bothers you, you should enter the site using this more standard link.)

Apple, of course, also offers a “cloud service” than can sync between devices: iCloud. You have probably had to deal with it already, so I will not say a whole lot about it. It is more tightly integrated with your iOS device than Dropbox is, but also much more specifically targeted (e.g. address book and calendar syncing). I used several other methods for keeping address books and calendars synchronized before iCloud was released. They were all horrible, often losing data like birthdays or duplicating records ad nauseum. So far, iCloud syncing for this kind of data has worked pretty well for me. You can also store and sync files in iCloud. There may come a time where enough apps support this that Dropbox becomes unnecessary, but that doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon. By the way, iCloud offers a web interface, which can sometimes be useful.

Connecting your iOS device to the internet involves some choices that can be slightly confusing, because there is no one “best” answer. It depends on your device, your needs and the quality of the options in your area. The iOS supports two different method of data communication. One method—wifi—uses hardware built into every iOS device. The second method—usually referred to as 3G—makes use of cellular phone technology that may be in your device (all iPhones have it and you can get it as on option on an iPad). If you have a cellular connection, you can likely connect to the net almost anywhere, and the main question you have is probably “what carrier to I use?” Seems like the most important factor in making this choice is “how good is the coverage in your area”. Since this varies, I have no single recommendation. If you don’t have a cellular connection (and even if you do), you may also be wondering about where you can find wifi “hotspots” so you can use your device while out and about. You might have more options than you realize. For example, if you get cable, does your cable company offer free wifi to its subscribers in well-traveled spots? (Cablevision does this, for example.)

Macintosh Applications

A few Macintosh applications will let you get a bit more use out of your iOS device. Some of these are also available on Windows or, if not, likely have analogous counterparts on that platform.

Calibre

Free. Calibre provides a semi-iTunes-like interface for organizing, converting and reading electronic books. It contains features specifically for syncing books acquired from sources other than Apple into the iBook application. (It can also do the same with a Kindle or Nook.) It can convert between various formats; however, Calibre cannot display or convert ebook files containing digital rights management (DRM), though it can store and sync them to supported devices. While Calibre is not the most well-polished application in the world, it gets the job done, particularly if you happen to stumble upon some huge trove of .epub files in some dark corner of the internet.

Calibre

Delicious Library

$35. For the anal-retentive in you, this tracks collections of books, DVDs, CDs and so on, letting you scan barcodes (with your computer’s camera or a bar-code scanner) and looking up item information for quick data entry. It can export an iPhone version of the data, so you can lookup stuff in your collection on the go. This has saved me from buying duplicate books or LEGO sets, for example.

Delicious Library

Handbrake

Free. Handbrake is a “video transcoder”. Technically, it can convert various video formats to other video formats, but most people use to to “rip” DVD movies into video files for playing on their computer. It comes with presets for encoding to just the right format for various iOS devices. Note that ripping media for personal use (using Handbrake or even Apple’s iTunes to rip CDs) is a legal grey area. Current copyright law neither prohibits nor allows it, and no body of case law yet exists. Handbrake, however, may violate the insipid Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it circumvents the (very lame) encryption on commercial DVDs which otherwise prevents you from using the media you paid for in a manner you like. This law applies only to the manufacture and distribution of circumvention tools, however, not their use for non-infringing purposes.

Handbrake

iExplorer

Free. Your iOS device is, among other things, a storage device. This application allows you to mount that storage and browse the files contained within. This lets you copy, delete and rename files from the main storage area of the device. Note that this does not give you access to the real directory root of the device (which contains the OS and such), though, if your device has been “jailbroken”, it can do so. You still get a lot of power without jailbreaking.

iExplorer

The unequal spaceship

October 26th, 2011 — Wordman

Imagine you are a member of an alien race that lives on a big arcology ship. The million of you on the ship mostly have jobs, and earn quatloos in exchange for work. Your society is divided into castes, depending on how many quatloos you earn. Most people are “betas”, and they live throughout the ship, some parts better than others. The top 10% of the earners, however, are “alphas”, and live in a special, luxurious compound within the ship. Since the alphas, even though a small portion of the population (100,000 out of the million), control half of the quatloos, they live really well.

One day, the ship-wide newscasts show you something odd. A small, but vocal portion of the alphas are protesting about income inequality. You watch the story, figuring they will talk about the big divide between the alphas and the betas, but they don’t. Instead, they are complaining that 1% of the other alphas control too large a portion of the collected wealth of the alphas. In other words, there are 1,000 “alpha primes” that have really pissed off the alphas.

Now, given that you are a beta, how much do you care about the plight of the alphas?

Translated to our own world (via the Global Rich List), if you make at least $25,140, you’d be an alpha.

Replacing Quicksilver

September 1st, 2011 — Wordman

When Quicksilver debuted in 2003 it seemed like someone you met either never heard of it or sang its praises to the heavens. This, of course, made me suspicious. I tried it anyway. Pretty soon, I was singing its praises to the heavens, too.

If you haven’t used it, it is a bit hard to explain. Everything you’ll read about it calls it an “app launcher”, which is one of the things it does, but that label doesn’t really tell you anything. The basic idea is that you have a hot key combination (control-space, usually) that pops up a floating window, you type the first few characters of whatever you are trying to open (apps, but also documents and a bunch of other stuff), Quicksilver finds what you are typing as you type it, and you select what it found (usually the first choice) by hitting return and the thing launches. This doesn’t sound all that impressive, but once you start using it, you feel crippled on machines that don’t have it.

Unfortunately, Quicksilver has a checkered history and was more or less abandoned a few years back. This post details my search for a replacement.

Confession: I wanted this post to be better, with screenshots and detailed analysis of the pros and cons, and so forth. It turns out, however, that all of the following applications do the basic job I wanted, and choosing between them turned out to be more about aesthetics and “feel”. While choosing software on this basis is a totally acceptable thing to do, its not particularly empirical or compelling, so sorry for that.

So, what was I looking for? I’m not a “power user” of Quicksilver. It has a lot of untapped potential that I never used, so don’t care much about. 99.9% of what I used Quicksilver for was:

  • Launching applications
  • Locating and opening documents
  • Revealing a file in the Finder
  • Getting info on a file

I spent about a month with various launchers installed on various machines. Here are the applications I tried:

Quicksilver

Maker: QSApp
Version Tested: Β60
Price: Free
Technology: Mac-only
iUseThis users: 11194

Surprise! Maybe I’m the last to know, but only after testing a number of these applications did I discover that, earlier in 2011, a group of developers had started developing Quicksilver again, and seem to providing better support than the original ever had. The first of their releases appears to have been mostly about fixing bugs. The second added quite a few new features. It also seems a bit faster and more polished.

So, if you came here looking for a replacement of that old version of Quicksilver, you might just be after the resurrected new version. This seems especially true if you are a Quicksilver power user, as the developer’s blog seems to cater to that crowd.

Alfred

Alfred iconMaker: Running with Crayons
Version Tested: 0.9.9 (w/ Powerpack)
Price: Free (Powerpack $20)
Technology: Mac-only
iUseThis users: 872

Though still in beta, Alfred seemed like the most streamlined of the bunch, though perhaps not quite as powerful. Certainly, the free version is sleek but rudimentary (it handled all of the jobs I list above except for the “Get Info” part). The interface, however, has a certain elegance that the others lack.

I bought the optional PowerPack ($20) and was more impressed. It has a great set of features that, importantly, are quite simple to use. The risk with all these application launchers is that, as you add knobs and whistles, they become…well, knobs and whistles. You get tons of customization in an ever more confusing interface. Alfred seems to have solved this problem somehow. Just looking at the advanced features in the preferences, I can see how (and why) to use them. I don’t get the same feel from Quicksilver.

LaunchBar

LaunchBar IconMaker: Objective Development
Version Tested: 5.1
Price: $35 (free 30-day trial)
Technology: Mac-only
iUseThis users: 1357

LaunchBar has been around a long time (I seem to remember it predating Mac OS X, sort of a precursor to the Dock, but maybe I’m thinking of something else). When Nicholas Jitkoff, the original developer of Quicksilver, was abandoning his creation, he specifically mentioned LaunchBar as a replacement. LaunchBar uses a slighly different approach, so it’s developers supply a guide to switching from Quicksilver.

The app is polished and has a ton of features, but in the month I used it, I didn’t find that one killer thing that would make me want to pay more for it that I would for Alfred. (Plus, it’s hard to beat Quicksilver’s free.)

Google Quick Search Box

Google Quick Search Box iconMaker: Google
Version Tested: 2.0.0.3328
Price: Free
Technology: Mac-only (Windows version discontinued)
iUseThis users: 791

Google grabbed Nicholas Jitkoff, the original developer of Quicksilver. One of the projects he has worked on for them is the Google Quick Search Box. The QSB comes across as a “Quicksilver light”, with more Google-centric search power built in from the start. I found the Google branding a bit distracting.

While I was testing, a new version came out. I immediately liked the previous version better (the new one seemed much slower), which isn’t a good sign, though the new version’s branding wasn’t as irritating.

Spotlight

Spotlight iconMaker: Apple
Version Tested: Lion’s
Price: Free (Built into Mac OS X)
Technology: Mac-only
iUseThis users: no entry

You can make a case that one of Mac OS X’s under-appreciated features, Spotlight, can replace some of what Quicksilver does. Try hitting command-space and type the name of an application, for example.

On the other hand, Spotlight offers an application programming interface (API) to access the content index it makes, and the other apps in this list make use of it in one way or another.

Conclusion

While I’m pleased that Quicksilver now has someone in its saddle again, I will be sticking with Alfred (plus powerpack) for a while. Had I known Quicksilver had been resurrected before I bought Alfred’s powerpack, would I have still purchased it? I’m not sure. But since I have, I’m going to give it a go. As I mentioned, though, this is largely just based on “feel”. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of these.

The curse of a blessing

August 1st, 2011 — Wordman

According to Genesis 1:28, after God created humans, he did some version of the following:

  • And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (King James)
  • Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” (New Living Translation)
  • God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (New International Version)
  • benedixitque illis Deus et ait crescite et multiplicamini et replete terram et subicite eam et dominamini piscibus maris et volatilibus caeli et universis animantibus quae moventur super terram (Latin Vulgate)
  • כח  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. (JPS 1917 Edition)

Ignore, for the moment, that God is bestowing a blessing here, not issuing a command (that is, God is imbuing man with fertility). Also, ignore the multitude of translation problems something like this has.

Instead, assume for a second that this verse means what many in the modern world think it does: God commanding to humans to breed. You can even bring all the baggage you want with that, like the implication that, therefore, birth control is a sin, and so on. Pretend that the first instruction God issued man was to conquer the earth by having lots of babies. Hey, guess what?

Mission Accomplished

We did it! Humans have “filled the earth”!

Can we slow down now?

I don’t know much Hebrew or Latin, so I can’t be sure of the translation, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say “be fruitful and multiply, then keep multiplying to the point that you start killing yourself with your own waste”. It seems like self-extermination through overpopulation would seriously hamper the mission to “reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

Even if you think we are not choking on our own waste already, how long do you think it will be until we do? How will you know? Think about it this way:

Say you have a jar. In this jar, you will be breeding some sort of organism (yeast or bacteria or something). Let’s say these organisms breed really quickly, with the population doubling every minute. You start breeding at 11am. By noon, the jar is full. Given that the population doubles each minute, what time is it when the jar is half-full?

People who don’t understand the problem (or exponential growth) will naïvely say 11:30. This is wrong, of course. What is not as obvious is that the mathematically correct answer (11:59, one minute before noon) is also wrong. It’s wrong because the population would never actually fill the jar at all. In the real world, the waste products produced by the existing organisms would kill the whole population long before the jar got anywhere near to full.

Now, imagine you are one of the organisms in this jar. What time would it be when you started saying to yourself “man, it is getting really crowded and smelly in here?” And once you notice, is there anything you can do about it? Or is it already too late?

One last thought: suppose waste doesn’t interfere and the jar really does fill up. Then, right at noon, the population finds three more jars, identical to the one they are already in. Hurray! The population is saved! They can expand into the new jars! Well, at least for two more minutes, until 12:02, when these jars fill up as well.

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Replacing Quicken

July 21st, 2011 — Wordman

Since OS X Lion does not include the old Rosetta technology, it will not run Quicken 2007. So, I have been trying out replacements before I upgrade. Here is what I need:

  • I have Quicken data going back to 1993. A replacement needs to be able to import it all, the more intact the better.
  • I download transactions electronically from a number of financial institutions. I need to be able to continue doing this at least as well as Quicken does it.
  • I need fairly advanced investment management. Though I no longer invest in stocks, I have in the past, and want those trades preserved. I also need the ability to manage investments of instruments that are not traded on exchanges (so, for example, don’t have official symbols or price feeds and so on).
  • Obviously, it needs to be Lion combatible
  • Good-looking reporting is useful, but not required. Again, at least as good as Quicken is needed (though that is not saying much).
  • I want a decent, Mac-like user experience.
  • I do not care about syncing to mobile devices or the like.

One warning: the reviews below will be a bit stream-of-consciousness, as I write down observations as they occur to me.

Preparation

If you are planning on doing a similar migration, make sure you export your Quicken data before you upgrade to Lion. You won’t be able to launch Quicken once you upgrade. Every app I tested can import a .qif file, so export on using File→Export→To QIF….

And, of course, back up everything, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Non-contenders

There turn out to be a surprisingly large number of financial apps that run on the Mac, but I will only be testing some of them. Most I am rejecting because they seem small time, unsupported, weakly-ported and/or missing features. There are, however, some popular, realistic choices that I am passing on:

  • Quicken Essentials for Mac ($50) is the most recent version of Quicken for Mac; however, it is ridiculously underpowered compared to its predecessor, Quicken 2007. If it would do the job, I would have converted to it months ago.
  • Some suggest just running Quicken for Windows under an emulator, such as Parallels. Since financial applications are not particularly CPU intensive, this should work fine. While I do own a version of Parallels, I pretty much never run it. I’m not really interested in starting. (BTW, if you are a Parallels user, you need version 6 to run under Lion.)
  • A number of online options, such as mint.com, are available; however, I have no interest in uploading my financial life into the cloud, encrypted or otherwise. (Note: this also why I’m not including screen shots of my testing in this post.)
  • MoneyWell ($50) is an interesting application that I actually own (part of one bundle or another). It is a great (and great looking) little money management application, and does support electronic downloads, but doesn’t have investment features. If you don’t care about that, it may work for you.

This brings us to the serious contenders, in the order I happened to investigate them…

iBank

iBank iconMaker: IGG Software
Version Tested: 4.2.4
Price: $60 (30-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 650

The import process was fairly painless and seemed to work well. I had to change a few account categories in a dialog provided for the purpose (e.g. changing loan accounts from “Liability” to “Loan”).

All accounts are listed in panel on the side. Account groups are allowed, which I really needed as I’ve collected a lot of accounts over the years (probably 100+). The grouping worked fine, but the UI only allows you to select (and, therefore, move) one account at a time, so making the groups was tedious, though only necessary once. It doesn’t seem to have a concept of “inactive” accounts either, so I had to build an “Inactive” account group and throw them all in there. Not the end of the world.

While direct connection to financial institutions is supported, it failed with odd errors for many of my accounts. The forum for the software showed many with the same errors, but no solution that worked for me. Some of this, I suspect, is because most of my accounts use more than just username/password for security (e.g. extra “site image” pages, sites that send a confirmation code as a text page that you have to enter, even cryptographic keyfobs). User error may also play a part, as it looks like some sites require you to change settings on the destination web site (and, in some cases, pay a fee) to support direct connection.

So, I fell back to what I had to do with Quicken: login to the sites manually and download my transactions. I’m used to this, so don’t consider it a deal breaker (though direct download would be nice). Importing these transactions is actually a bit smoother than in Quicken.

As mentioned, some of my investments don’t have official price feeds, so the balance in those accounts initially showed up as zero. After some tinkering, I found it is possible to manually enter a price for these instruments, which is about as much as I can expect. Armed with a price, the balance became correct.

One drawback I notice is that investment accounts don’t seem to have a column containing a running total of shares, just value. That is an annoying omission, so much so that I wonder if I’m just missing some mechanism to display it.

Loan information was not transferred over, so I had to set that up by hand. The accounts were all there, just not linked together with proper payment information. Setting this up is straightforward and provides a good “pending transaction” ability to see when payments are due. I needed to make some of these transactions show up in the past, which took a couple of tries to get right, but nothing too severe.

No import is perfect, but it did seem that any non-ideal situation I ran into was easily corrected, usually by the action I naturally tried first, which is a good UI in action.

Conclusion: As the first of these applications I tried, iBank set a pretty high bar. I could easily see myself using it, and it will be the one to beat.

Liquid Ledger

Liquid Ledger iconMaker: Modeless Software
Version Tested: 2.3.3
Price: $40 (60-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 11

The import of my 3MB .qif file took over three hours to complete (contrasted to less than a minute from all the other apps). It does seem to have imported correctly. Also, it automatically groups accounts into folders in its sidebar, very similarly to the way I had to do it manually in the others. You can still can only select one account at a time, though (this is particularly irritating here, because if you select a folder, it displays the combined transactions from all accounts in the folder, so you know the UI has the ability to display multiple accounts at once, but just doesn’t for no reason). No way to hide inactive accounts, either.

I generally hate toolbars in any application, but this one is particularly bad. Five buttons, one of which is a color picker. Really? The only thing remotely useful is the search field, but fortunately, it isn’t useful enough to force me to keep the toolbar visible. It does include an option to hide it, which I used almost immediately.

The Income & Expenses section is quite nice, sort of like smart folders showing transactions based on what Quicken calls Categories, rather than Accounts.

The software recommended that I save a SQL version of my data, as it would better handle my large number of transactions. Not only faster saving, but a much smaller file (~6MB vs. 36MB). Interesting.

Importing transactions from institutions is…not great. Unlike Quicken and iBank, there is no interface for matching what is being imported with the existing ledger. It is easy to re-import transactions, duplicating them, but not so easy to undo the duplication.

After a few minutes of looking, I don’t see any way to update security prices. I also don’t see any features for calculating/scheduling loan payments. That’s a big problem for me, as I don’t want to calculate principal vs. interest each time.

Investment features exist, but seem fairly sparse. It doesn’t have the concept of “Move Shares In” that Quicken does, for example, though it allows entry of transactions in a sort of “warning” mode, allowing the destination to remain empty (as it would in an MS transaction).

It can handle split transactions (where one transaction might be distributed among a number of accounts), but does so using a semi-modal popup dialog. Functional, but…meh. Modal dialogs are generally bad these days.

Pretty much nothing in the application is right-clickable, in spite of a number of menus being sensitive to what is selected. That’s sort of old-school Mac, from the dumb one-button mouse days. Apparently, I don’t work that way anymore.

Conclusion: If this were the only choice, it would be tolerable, but some of the others are more feature-rich. The lack of loan support and more advanced investment features is a problem for me.

Money

Money iconMaker: Jumsoft
Version Tested: 4.0.1
Price: $19, until end of July (free 15-day trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 236

I got this one as part of the most recent Mac SuperBundle (and you can, too, if you hurry). It is possible that this application is the best day-to-day money management software in existence. I wouldn’t know, though, because it screwed up my import pretty badly.

After taking about 10 minutes to import, the end result was a totally blank window. After quitting and relaunching, my information showed up. Sort of. The main overview has a section called “Top Categories”. For some reason, every entry in this section was the abbreviation of a state, most of which I’ve never lived in. Looks to me like the import might have put the wrong column in the Category field.

A bigger problem is that some of my investment account transactions are missing share quantities. That is really bad.

Performance was really, really bad. I got the distinct impression that Money was not prepared for the number of transactions I have. When resizing, for example, the window would not redraw for several seconds.

Conclusion: The problems seen right away with this application meant I rejected it before really getting to the heart of it. It simply failed at preserving my old data, so no point in continuing.

iFinance

iFinance iconMaker: Synium Software
Version Tested: 3.2.8
Price: $30 (30-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 99

I’ve liked other applications from Synium (particularly MacFamilyTree), so was anxious to look at this one.

Getting started was not quite as clean as some of the other applications. Most put an option to import from Quicken right in your face the first time you launch them. While iFinance also puts an “options for starting” window up, and some of of these options do involve importing, an option to import from a .qif file isn’t on the window. I assumed that I needed to create a blank database, then choose some sort of Import menu option, which turned out to be the case. Oddly, the only progress during the import was the spinning beach ball. No progress bar or anything like that.

Unfortunately, after the import, I’m also missing information from some of my investment accounts. All of Quicken’s “Move Share” transactions seem to have just been dropped on the floor and are missing. The vast majority of transactions are missing descriptions.

The interface is also garish and annoying. As an example, each transaction has a brightly colored amount (white text in a red or green aqua-like button) and has a colored circle for “Category”. This circle is a representation of the account(s) on the other end of the transaction, but there is no text in the list. Just the colored circle. The system has taken my hundred or so accounts and assigned them unique shades, but the color alone doesn’t help me. The detail view shows the actual name of the account (and their colors), but, uh…no.

A quick tour of some of the reports shows them to be more graphic intensive than some of the other applications, but clearly not built for the large number of accounts I have, which make the legend dominate the screen.

Conclusion: Like Money, this one fails at my first basic requirement for data integrity, so doesn’t merit further looking.

Money Dance

Money Dance iconMaker: The Infinite Kind
Version Tested: 2011
Price: $50 (free trial allowing unlimited import, but only 100 hand-entered transactions)
Technology: Java-based
iUseThis users: 215

This is a Java application and, though it does a much better job of being Mac-like than many Java apps, it still shows. The buttons are in non-standard places, the widgets are not standard, background colors are a bit off. Redraws of windows are a bit clunky. Some dialog fields don’t respond to cut and paste commands. And so on. While much of that is cosmetic, it causes me to cringe enough that it is a distraction, so counts as a strike against Money Dance.

The import was quick, but my net worth is off. Looking through the accounts, I see some have additional transactions and some have transactions that are missing. Some moves between a credit line and various investment accounts might be getting double counted for some reason. I should say that these import mistakes are less severe than those made by Money and iFinance. I get the impression that I could correct them with an hour or so of tinkering. Looks like the mistakes are more in the area of account linkages, rather than data actually missing. I’d bet that people without transactions as esoteric as mine would have a better outcome.

The import grouped my accounts in a mostly reasonable way (and, you can remove unused accounts from the sidebar without deleting them, unlike in these other applications), but you cannot group accounts in arbitrary folders.

Split transactions use a modal popup technique even uglier than Liquid Ledger’s. Investment accounts do provide a running share balance, though.

Setting up direct connect to financial institutions was pretty much the same story as iBank, suggesting that the problems may be on the bank end. Importing files manually works, but doesn’t have any “matching” process before confirming transactions, so creating duplicates seems pretty easy.

Conclusion: Money Dance seems powerful, moreso than most of the other candidates, if a little clunky. The import mistakes are troublesome, but not necessarily fatal. For every feature it has that I actually use, though, iBank seems to do the same thing in a cleaner fashion.

SEE Finance

EDIT: I didn’t hear about SEE Finance until someone mentioned it in the comments. See what I have to say about it there.

Conclusion

My top two choices are iBank and Money Dance, in that order, with Liquid Ledger running a distant third. A longer test period and more experience may force me to change my mind, but I am going to use iBank for now. Some things about it still bug me, but it has more to like than the others. Reading comments about the various apps on forums and such suggest that iBank has, historically, had stability/corruption problems, causing many to bail on it in favor of Money Dance. The dates on these comments, though, suggest that this hasn’t happened lately. I’m about to find out.

Let me know how your own switchover goes.

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A reminder to European executives

May 16th, 2011 — Wordman

To European executives:

When traveling in the United States, please remember one thing: porn is not real. No matter how much films from San Fernando Valley may lead you to believe otherwise, the maid does not magically want to have sex with you, no matter how naked you are. The pizza delivery guy is just there to deliver pizza. There is no sex in the champagne room.

As a European executive, you are likely rich, powerful and, well…European. Most American cities have no shortage of sluts and boy toys who may be happy to have some meaningless sex with you, but you need to go out and find them. They will not be delivered to your door.

At least, not for free.

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Forced medicine

April 12th, 2011 — Wordman

A woman in Massachusetts was just found guilty of attempted murder for withholding cancer medication from her autistic son, who has since died. Go read that article for the specifics. No, really. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

OK, so, there are a number of question raised by this case, some of them moral/ethical questions, some of them legal. But, before the sound and fury about this case (which I predict will only last about three days in the mainstream press) abates, I want to concentrate on this question: instead of withholding the drugs for her own reasons, suppose the woman withheld the drugs because she could not afford them. Would she then still have been found guilty of attempted murder?

I suspect a lot of people would say no, reasoning that a jury would find that, even if she wanted to provide the drugs, she couldn’t get them anyway, thus absolving her of the responsibility.

Now, suppose you agree with that. What this verdict then means is this: the state can now force you, under penalty of imprisonment, to consume medication if you can afford it. It is no longer your choice to consume life-saving medication, or to make that choice for your children. If you can afford it, you must purchase and use it, or go to jail. At least, this is true when (as is typically the case) your children are assumed not to be able to make legally binding choices for themselves.

Or, maybe it doesn’t mean that. Instead, maybe it means that the state now considers there to be a legal difference between choosing to consume life-saving medication for yourself vs. making that choice for your children. But if it isn’t the parent’s choice, whose choice is it? The only other possibilities are the child or the state. If it is the child’s choice, then the child has just been given a legal mandate to control the spending of others for his own benefit (“Ma, the doc gave me a prescription for a new Audi. Pony up!”), and if the others don’t like it, they can go to jail. If it is the state, then the state is now making medical and moral choices for its citizens. Neither of these two alternatives is all that palatable.

Another thing bothers me about this case. The state charges that Kristen LaBrie caused the death of the child by withholding the meds. The child is dead because, as the state would have you believe, his medicine was withheld. Then why is the state charging her with attempted murder? If you believe the state, then isn’t it full-on successful 100% genuine murder?

It’s likely that the attempted murder charge was used because it has a much lower burden of proof for the state, and the prosecutor didn’t think he could make a full murder charge. If that is the reason, then it suggests that this whole case is some sort of political wet dream agenda from the D.A.’s office. “Sorry Ms LaBrie. Nevermind that your son was autistic, had leukemia and died, you need to go to prison so that I can prove something to someone, somewhere.” The whole thing sickens me.

I may have more to say about this later. Right now, my neighborhood watch officer is telling me it’s time to take my soma.