Snapheal 2 – $19.99 – App Store
Photoshop has always been the go-to tool for any kind of retouching and it’s not hard to see why. With advanced features like the Content Aware Fill, it can perform photographic magic, not just removing blemishes, but inventing whole potions of a photo out of the ether. There’s no two ways about it – it’s an incredible app – it’s also bloody expensive.
If all you want to do is remove blemishes from your photographs then it’s difficult to justify Photoshop’s hefty price-tag and that’s where an app like SnapHeal comes in. It doesn’t offer the feature-set of Photoshop and it doesn’t pretend to either – this is a product aimed squarely at ordinary Mac users who want to tidy up their photos.
SnapHeal 2 is the ideal software for someone who’d love to get the same results as a Photoshop user, only without the cost. It focuses squarely on the task of removing stuff from photos, whether that’s a few zits on someone faces or a whole person that’s in the way. But that does not mean that it is any less capable, in this regard, as Photoshop.
To be honest I was amazed at how well SnapHeal 2 performed – in fact in several instances it did a far better job of removing elements of a photograph than Photoshop. It did particularly well at removing items and restoring the background. In Photoshop the Content Aware Fill often uses an obvious source area which can sometimes look like crude cloning, but I had no such issues with SnapHeal.
There are three removal tools available and the one you choose depends on the item(s) you’re trying to get rid of. These have been given the exotic names Shapeshifter, Wormhole and Twister. You deploy each based on different removal critera – Shapeshifter is used when you have large objects to remove, Wormhole for things like small skin blemishes and Twister for things like clouds and small tree branches.
To get rid of a troublesome object in the photo, you can either brush over the affected region or drag the marching ants around it. The area is then highlighted in red and you can choose your removal tool. I tested it on my three year old Macbook Pro and it was speedy even with multiple selections. I didn’t have to wait for more than a minute no matter how complex the scene.
Certain removal scenarios worked out far better with Snapheal than Photoshop – in particular the removal of smaller fiddly objects like twigs. You have to be realistic about it though and if you try remove a massive bulk from your image then it may be obvious where the source pixels were taken from.
In addition to its excellent removal tools, Snapheal also has a selection of traditional retouching tools such as a clone stamp, image adjustment sliders (contrast, saturation etc) and crop and rotate tools. It can access photos in your Aperture or iPhoto libraries and can export back to them or share directly on the main social networks.
I feel there’s a very strong case for the addition of Snapheal to any photographers software library. If you regularly take family photos and get frustrated by imperfections in your photos then it’s definitely worth buying. In fact given the quality of the removal tols, I think there’s a very strong case for existing Photoshop users to have Snapheal on hand too – I’ve certainly come to rely on it when Content Aware Fill’s not cutting it. Recommended.
$10 (iPhone app) – $10 (Mobile Dongle) – $10 (Camera Cable) – TriggerTrap.com
Thanks to digital sensors and the high quality and affordable pricing of medium to high-end DSLR cameras, there has been a renaisance in the photography scene. Swing by a site like 500px and you can quickly see how much high quality imagery is being produced by hobbyists and pros alike. This renewed popularity has lead photographers to experiment with different techniques, such as timelapses, low light, astrophotography, tilt-shifts, HDR, macros and underwater photography. What we’re also starting to see are add-on hybrid products that bridge the gap between pro gear and consumer gear.
$free – Soundcloud
If you’re the sort of person that’s into electronic music, who enjoys listening to DJ mixes and bleeding edge releases or if you’re an original recording artist, then you may have been using SoundCloud for a while. For most other people it’s probably only recently that it crept into the sphere of awareness and even then it’s not exactly a mainstream service.
SoundCloud started out life in 2007 as a service pitched squarely at the music industry, at recording artists, producers and record labels. It enabled the transfer of music into the cloud long before the likes of Dropbox or Google Drive. It enables users to share (publicly or privately) their songs, riffs, beats, vocals or mixes in an environment specifically tooled for the transfer and storage of audio. It’s also a great place to discover brand new music as evidenced when its popularity exploded last year, going from 3million to 10million users within 12 months.
The service used to be entirely browser based, but last year they released iOS apps and a couple of months later an Android version. I’ve been using SoundCloud since 2009 and greatly anticipated an app of some sort so that I could use to listen to new mixes streamed over the Internet. Unfortunately I have found both apps to be very lacking, they seem counterintuitive and while they’re not obstructive to the listening process, they don’t exactly help.
The app’s split into sections by tabs – a dashboard, a stream, activity and search. The dashboard gives access to the friend search, your uploads and suggested people (for you to follow). The stream shows uploads on the site from people you follow in order of age. The activity tab shows anything that’s been going on with your account such as people faving your music or following you. The search screen enables you to find sounds or people. So far so good.
The central problem with this app, and the main reason I think it fails, is that you can’t see what everyone else is listening to. On the SoundCloud website there is a page called Explore Tracks. Within that section you can view the hottest tracks on the site, the latest tracks and even browse by tag cloud. It’s an awesome way to discover cool new music and it’s nowhere to be found in the iOS app. There’s absolutely no way to find out what others are listening to, what’s hot, what’s not, what’s new – you can only do very specific searches.
It’s hard to believe that nobody at SoundCloud considered just how dull their app is – it’s fine if you know the exact name of an artist you want to follow, but useless if you want to discover a new one. I can’t help feeling that they’re missing a big opportunity to turn their service into the Spotify of new music, because if they had any sense they’d leverage the crowd-sourced opinions of people who like discovering that new music and charge a subscription to listen to it.
Stick with the web site.
$49 – SugarFx - Trial
Final Cut Pro X is an awesome application, but the titles and transitions that come with it can get old pretty quickly. So it’s always a good idea to supplement your collection and if you’re not an accomplished Motion user, that means buying an off-the-shelf package.
Punchline is SugarFX‘s latest plugin for Final Cut, bundling a collection of professional titles and transitions together to give your videos a slick appearance. Once installed the suite appears in the in-app browser alongside all your regular elements. To use any of them you just drag and drop onto the timeline as you would any element.
There are 32 elements in the suite, including 11 titles and 21 transitions, all of which are fully customisable so you can put your own spin on them. There are a variety of looks on offer, but they’re primarily of a panel or grid design and, from my point of view, well suited to more action based footage, due to their kinetic design.
Drop a transition on the title element and you can finetune the look to get it the way you want. The colours (background, line and text) can all be tweaked and the font typeface, style, size and tracking can all be changed as required. In addition you can change the blending mode for the text to give it either a bold stand-out or transparent look.
The transitions follow the same look and feel as the titles offering arrows, centre-in/out, grid, panel and slant elements. Colours can be changed as required and the blending mode changed from punchy normal to softer overlay. It’s a versatile collection that offers greater variety and flexibility than some other suites.
Punchline’s a strong and professional looking plugin that works perfectly with Final Cut Pro X. Advanced features such as the ability to configure individual panels by simply dragging markers on the timeline make this a worthy addition to any Final Cut user’s arsenal of titles and transitions. The elements all have a similar style that evokes speed and motion and would work particularly well with any kind of racing or outdoor pursuits footage.
The health and fitness section of the App Store is one of the busiest areas of the shop, featuring thousands of apps that promise to get you healthier and fitter. It’s also fair to say that the health and fitness section of the App Store has the widest range in quality of those apps outside the wretched ‘Entertainment’ section. With so many fitness apps vying for your dollar-spend and with so much blatant copying going on, it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad, the flab from the fit and the snake oil from the Omega 3.
In this feature we’re looking at a total fitness suite, a selection of apps that will cover your entire fitness regime, from exercise tracking to health monitoring and food consumption. With summer on its way in the northern hemisphere, why not spend a couple of bucks, bust out those trainers and get trim for the warm season.
Aggregated news readers have become a sizeable niche market on pretty much all mobile computing platforms. There are two main varieties of these readers – the user-curated ones and the producer-curated ones. Flipboard, Zite and Longread are all producer curated news readers, while Instapaper, Readability and Pocket are user-curated.
Pocket used to go by the name of Read It Later and it was the best of the read-later news apps available for smartphones and tablets. It has now been redesigned, rebranded and relaunched and, more importantly, is now free (it used to cost $3). We’re taking a look at the iPad version of the app, although it is also available on iPhone, Android (phone and tablet), Kindle Fire and in your browser.
So for Pocket to be useful to you, you need to get into the habit of forwarding on interesting articles to it. The idea is that when you encounter some interesting online story or feature, but you don’t have the time there and then to read it, you send it to Pocket and later on, when you do have time, you read it. If you’re not the sort of person who can get into the habit of sending on those links then your Pocket library is going to look somewhat bare.
When you start the app, your articles are presented in a cool Pinterest style block array with headline and image or headline and text depending on the story – you an also switch to a simple list based layout. You can further refine your list of articles by viewing just articles, just videos or just images. I must admit that using an app like this to store interesting images never occurred to me – I’ve always used it purely for long text based articles.
When you view an article you can view it in a reduced text format, or simply the original article on an embedded web page. None of these aggregating apps are very good at extracting just the text from articles and about 50% of the time you’ll have to view in original article mode if you want to read it at all. Pocket’s no different in this regard.
When viewing in article mode you can ramp the point size of the text up, switch between a serif and a sans-serif font and boost the leading to make the on-screen text more legible. There’s also a night mode that inverts the display and a brightness setting so you can dial down the screens’ intensity for less over-powering light when reading in bed at night.
Should you decide the article is worthy of onward sharing then there’s also a long list of apps and services you can send to, including bookmarking services like Pinboard and Delicious, link sites like Reddit and LinkedIn and a long list of Twitter apps. You can also copy it, email it or open the article in Safari. Once you’re done with an article, you can mark it read (with the tick button) and it’ll get moved to your archives. There’s also a bulk archiving tool on the main screen of the app.
Pocket’s a great read-later app, but it’s not one that will prove useful to all people. If you prefer to have your news served up for you in a channel based format then Flipboard or Zite are a better option. But if you’re the sort of person that likes collecting interesting articles and prefer to give them the attention they require at a later date when you can fully absorb the details, then Pocket’s fine. I wouldn’t say it was any better than Read It Later and I definitely feel the cool black and tan colour scheme of the old app was much better than the trendy rainbow colours of the new one.
UnoDNS – UnoTelly – $7.95per month
The world has changed, but as we all know, the media companies have not changed with it. They still try to feed their shows to us using some out-moded time-slot based model built around a channel system that was introduced nearly a hundred years ago, solely because of the mode of transmission of the time. In this day and age you are far more likely to get your televisual entertainment piped to you in part or, more likely, in full using digital transmission. As digital has taken over and as the Internet has spread across the planet, the media companies try to lock their shows down geographically for licensing reasons. In short, it’s a mess. We’ve changed, but the media companies have not.
Services such as the BBC iPlayer and Hulu are prime examples of the muddled thinking of those media companies. While both are technically excellent services, they are region-locked and if you try and view iPlayer outside the UK or Hulu outside the US, you will find the door slammed in your face. While the BBC have, in part, addressed this issue with the release of the worldwide iPlayer service (of which I am a fully paid-up subscriber) it still doesn’t give access to the full schedule. Hulu meanwhile, remains an American-only service. Then there’s Netflix, Spotify, Pandora – if you live in Australia as I do, then all these services – iPlayer, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora and Netflix are locked away. So what’s to do.
I’ve tried myriad services over the years that attempt (with varying degrees of success) to circumvent geo-IP blocks. I’ve tried proxy services of various kinds, VPN services and all flavours in between. Many of these services do manage to circumvent geographical IP checks, but that is not enough – there are two other big issues that need to be addressed. Firstly remember that we are, after all, talking about streaming video and audio and that means that we need to concern ourselves with bandwidth. Secondly, many of these services are either difficult to set up or restrictive in their use and usually require some switch to be flicked every time we need to use the geo-locked service.
In my quest for region-free TV, I’ve tried and had issues with, services like VPNs (best of which was StrongVPN) or IP blocks both paid-for (such as HideMyAss) and free (such as ExpatShield) but UnoDNS neatly sidesteps pretty much all of the issues I’ve had in the past. It is a set and forget service that enables you to view American or UK geo-locked services from one account and which does not impact on the flow of local Internet traffic. Once you’ve installed it (and installation is about as simple as it gets) you can leave it running all the time and just enjoy your iPlayer or Hulu shows. We were supplied with a review account to the Premium service, which retails at $7.95 per month, and have been running it for a week now.
As the name suggests, UnoDNS is a DNS service. Once you’ve signed up (and there’s a week long free trial if you’d like to road-test it), you’re supplied with two DNS settings. You can enter these in your modem or router settings, which means that every device in the house gets access to them with no further configuration, or you can set them individually on your computer, your TV, your media centre, your games console or your smartphone. Configuration is as easy as adding the two DNS addresses supplied with the service and then rebooting your modem, computer or smartphone or restarting your Internet connection. Once those DNS entries are in place you can simply browse to iPlayer or Hulu and UnoDNS will spoof your real IP address for one located in the appropriate country, enabling you to stream audio and video.
That’s all well and good of course, but what about the bandwidth? I’ve used best-in-class VPN services such as Strong in the past with very mixed results – bottom line is that they really don’t cut it for streaming anything other than basic audio – particularly to somewhere as remote as my house in Australia. In many ways my location is the ultimate test of these services – if they can successfully stream video from the UK to my antipodean abode, then they’re doing something right. And let’s not even mention the fact that every time I wanted to watch a US or UK based TV show I had to manually start the VPN.
First test was BBC iPlayer. UnoDNS nonchalantly bypassed the geographical lookup and gave me full access to the service. I streamed an episode of The Apprentice (UK, naturally) and it worked so well it wasn’t massively different from a standard definition rip of the show downloaded from the newsgroups. The stream did stutter occasionally (probably about four times during the course of the 4o minute show), but after a very short re-buffer it started running again. It was very watchable. Having tried about 20 different services over the last few years, UnoDNS was the first and only one I’ve found that successfully streamed iPlayer video from the UK to Australia in anything like viewable quality. Colour me impressed.
Next it was on to Hulu. Again, UnoDNS had no problems circumventing the geographic IP check and we were granted full access to the site. Hulu worked even better than the iPlayer; over several full days of testing it didn’t re-buffer once and the quality of the video was such that I was only reminded that I was watching video being streamed from the US when the ad breaks came on. Given the number of TV shows available on Hulu, this facility alone is worth the subscription cost of UnoDNS.
In the interests of completing a full and complete test of the service, we installed the DNS on iPhone and iPad too. Both worked perfectly – I was able to run the BBC iPlayer app directly from my iPad without issue. I also tried the US ABC Player and this also worked perfectly. I don’t have a HuluPlus account so I couldn’t try that, but I can’t envisage it having any issues since the desktop version worked so well.
Given that streaming video from the other side of the planet didn’t present the service with any issues, as you can probably understand, the audio services also worked perfectly. Spotify and Pandora worked without a single issue, giving me full and complete access to both with full unblemished quality and no re-buffering whatsoever.
Ever since I managed to circumvent the BBC’s UK IP wall eight years ago, with a proxy donated by a friend at a UK University, I’ve been waiting for the technology to catch up with the reality of the geo-locked world we live in. And I have to tell you, I think UnoDNS is pretty much it – the holy grail that us expats have been waiting for – a no-nonsense, reasonably priced, effective service that enables us to watch the video and audio content we want, when we want. There are big ticket shows that I’ll still download because I want them in high definition and with surround sound, ditto movies – but for the vast majority of my viewing requirements, UnoDNS is more than capable of supplying the goods. It’s a product designed specifically to stream video and audio, not a business-oriented VPN setup pressed into service as a streamer, on the side. It’s the antidote to the geo-IP lock-out and if you’re an American in Paris or a Brit in Sydney, it’s the perfect way to get your fix of home-grown TV without the hassle. Highly recommended.
Two month update: I know better than many people that services like this one can and do degrade over time and so it’s always beneficial to get an update down the line about whether a product is still any good. I’m now two months into using UnoDNS to free myself of the region blocked shackles imposed by the big media companies and I’m happy to report that the service has remained consistently excellent throughout. In fact after my trial period expired I signed up for an annual subscription myself. My other half loves watching all the BBC shows on the iPlayer and I’m enjoying access to Pandora to ease me through the working day. So UnoDNS remains far and away the best option for anyone wanting to view region-blocked media online.
We live in a time-poor world in which we snatch moments to ourselves with our mobile devices on train platforms, queues, waiting rooms and swingers parties. Quite often we’ll encounter a story or an article or a review or a recipe that looks really interesting, but we don’t have time to read it. Or we’ve got all the time in the world to read it, but the website that features it is a butt-ugly digital car crash of spastic font selections and whacky colour schemes.
It was from such misery that the deferred reading application was born. These are applications that receive URLs from you and save them for later. In addition to simply harvesting those URLs, they also prettify the text content, stripping out the nasty formatting and weird fonts and presenting you with a gloriously unsullied slab of perfectly rendered text. The idea is that instead of hurriedly skimming an interesting article, you forward the address on to your deferred reading application of choice and later on, when you’ve found a quiet cubicle with plenty of loo-roll and a comfortable seat, you can give the article the attention it deserves.
I have to admit that I’m still perplexed by the popularity of Instagram. I downloaded it shortly after release, decided it was a poor copy of Hipstamatic and never used it again. Meanwhile millions of people downloaded it and made the most of the social part of the app. Turns out that Instagram is not a camera application at all, it’s a social network that happens to use photos rather than status updates. Anyway – I suspect that the runaway success of Instagram caught many people with their pants down.
EyeEm started out life as a mobile phone photography site or more specifically an iPhonography site. They ran some popular competitions which lead to exhibitions in Berlin, New York and London, thus raising the profile of cameraphone photography to hitherro unimagined heights. But the site remained a somewhat niche one, attracting a fraction of the userbase of Instagram.
Now the EyeEm team are hoping to play a bit of catch-up with their own iOS and Android apps – EyeEm Filter Cam. I had a look at the iPhone version of the app, which is available free in the App Store. It’s a perfectly good application, but I’m not sure it’s going to make any impact with such big name apps already out there, particularly since it brings nothing new to the table.
Filter Cam can be used as a standard iPhone camera app, with the usual tweaks (flash, front facing camera etc) or it can be used to edit images that are already in your Camera Roll. One feature I did like is that effects are live – once you choose a style (sepia, colour boost etc) you can see that effect in the view finder window, not just when you press the shutter button. You can also add a variety of frames to your image.
Once you’ve taken your photo, you an upload it to the EyeEm website where others can see, favourite and comment on your image. You can view photos either on the website or in-app, by album, friends or popularity. There’s also an ‘Around You’ option that checks geo-tags for local photographers, but I live in Buttfuck Australia and the only local photos were my own.
The EyeEm app also features the usual smattering of share buttons for Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and email and also enables you to view an activity feed (who’s followed you, liked your photos etc). There’s also an editable profile page which shows all your uploads and their popularity.
This isn’t a bad app by a long way, but it doesn’t offer anything new and I can’t see it ever being any more than a minor player in the iPhone photography market. It’s a bit of shame, because the EyeEm guys were blowing the iPhonography trumpet long before Instagram showed up, but there’s nothing compelling enough here to pull people away from Instagram or indeed Hipstamatic or Camera+.
Caffeinated – $8.99 – GeekyGoodness
Reeder – $9.99 – Silvio Rizzi
So by now you all know that the best way to check your favourite websites is via an RSS feed, right? Rather than clicking through all those hundreds of bookmarks, you can focus on the stories themselves, no matter what source they come from and thus get down to the facts without the fluff. You also know that the best way to manage those RSS feeds is by using Google’s Reader webapp, right? Cool. (If you don’t, please start here and then go here.)
As good as Google Reader is, the web browser is not the best environment for reading articles, mainly because the text renders so poorly. It’s preferable to utilise a specialised Google RSS News Reader application because it gives you that one central location for all your feeds, improves feed management and renders the articles better.
Now for a long time the only Google Reader app worth actually paying for was Reeder. It has ruled the roost for some time now – other challengers have come and gone, but Reeder continues. Recently however a new contender arrived on the scene, by the name of Caffeinated and for the first time it looks like it has a genuine chance of knocking Reeder of its perch. As a hardened RSS news feed junkie and long-term user of Reeder and user of Caffeinated since beta, I’ve had a long hard look at each app and these are my thoughts.
Internet Radio has been around for longer than you think. I can remember tuning into some American stations way back in 1995 courtesy of Real Audio’s player. I couldn’t stay online for long because I was on a metered ISDN line, but it was amazing listening to that station and its adverts and traffic reports.
More than 17 years later and now the vast majority of broadcasters transmit their shows online as well as over-the-air. There are also specialised Internet-only radio stations and you may even find that you can get some stations unmetered over your broadband connection. Sure you’ve got Spotify, Pandora, Last.FM and Google Music offering their services too, but proper managed radio shows remain the easiest way of listening to music you love and discovering new songs.
So the question is – what’s the best way of listening to these stations? Now it’s worth pointing out that iTunes, Windows Media Player, Winamp and Banshee can all play streaming radio stations, but we’re not interested in some bloated media centre behemoth hogging memory and CPU cycles – we’re after something specialised, lightweight and flexible. These are the three best Internet radio players for Mac, Windows and Linux.
Screamer Radio – Windows – Free
Screamer Radio has two things going against it. Firstly, it has a stupid name and secondly it has an interface only a mother could love. Neither of these things detract from that fact that Screamer is far and away the best Internet Radio player for Windows and we shall just have to accept the name and the interface in the name of quality and flexibility.
Unlike some other radio player applications for Windows, Screamer comes fully equipped with one of the most comprehensive lists of stations I’ve ever seen. These have been divided into four sections – Categories (Dance, Rock, Hip-Hop, News etc.), Country, Foreign Language and Network. So for instance if you wanted to listen to the Essential Mix on BBC Radio 1 (and why wouldn’t you!) you can find the station in Network > BBC and in Country > UK. If you listen to a particular station a lot, add it as a favourite for speedy access.
Amongst Screamer’s other tricks are recording (it’ll record individual tracks or blocks of time and can even be set up to record on a schedule), lossless audio encoding and basic audio effects. It’s incredibly easy to use, comes fully loaded with all the stations you’ve need from install and can be minimised to the System Tray for easy access. Yes, the interface is very plain, but that also makes it very simple to use. I’ll take Screamer over iTunes any day of the week.
Radium – Mac – $24.95
If I’d been writing this article six months ago, then I’d have chosen RadioShift as the best Mac Internet radio player thanks to its massive TuneIn powered database of over 100,000 listings. Unfortunately Rogue Amoeba have ceased development of that app and so while it’ll continue to work for existing owners, everyone else will have to look elsewhere. That means that Radium is currently the best Mac radio player you can buy.
Radium lives in the menu bar for ready access to all your stations. It doesn’t come pre-loaded with stations – you need to search for them and then add them as favourites. This cuts down on clutter and listings for stations and shows you’ll never listen to, but it means you need to be a bit more pro-active at discovering listening sources. You can search for station names, country, city, language or genre and then click on a search result to listen or add it to your favourites.
Amongst Radium’s neater features are full AirPlay support, social network sharing, customisable shortcuts, Apple remote support and an equaliser. There’s also an awesome history feature which lists all the songs you’ve listened to online in the past and enables you to listen to them again or buy them on iTunes. Radium’s an awesome little radio player, always at hand thanks to its menu bar interface and surprisingly powerful once you start exploring it.
There isn’t a massive amount of variety for Linux users when it comes to listening to Internet radio (with the caveat that media players Banshee and Amarok will do this) but it only takes one good app and everything’s sorted. That’s definitely the case with Radio Tray, which takes its design cues from Radium and serves as a simple and reliable radio player for all Linux users.
I installed Radio Tray via Ubuntu Software Centre, but you can grab the tarball or Ubuntu distributable from the website if you want a direct download. It’s a tiny application that sits in the system tray and has to be configured manually with radio stations. Stations can be grouped in categories and are added directly via URL. It’s a bit of a pain in the arse adding all your stations manually, but you only need to do it once.
Radio Tray can play most streaming audio formats, including PLS, M3U, ASX, WAX and WVX formats. That selection encompasses pretty much every streaming broadcaster meaning it’s unlikely that you’ll find a station that the app can’t play. Audio quality was great, with swift connection to audio sources and a cool notifier on-screen showing station and song information.
If you don’t want to install an app to listen to your radio then it’s perfectly easy to do it directly within the browser. Most radio stations have their own feeds on their homepages, but if you want a comprehensive list of stations and shows then TuneIn is where you should look. You can search for stations worldwide at TuneIn and listen to shows directly in your browser using the site’s Flash/Sliverlight powered player.
Shoutcast have been serving up streaming audio for nearly as long as the format has existed and they’re still going strong. They offer 50,461 right in the browser and supply good listening to over half a million people daily. Finally, there’s RadioPaq provide access to radio station worldwide.
Rubbernet – Conceited Software – $29.99
It wasn’t that long ago that we used to fire up a dial-up modem when we wanted to connect to the Internet and check something out. After we’d tied up the only phone line into the house and pissed off other members of the family who wanted to make a phone call but got line noise screeched down their ears, we’d get offline and continue using our computers with no wider connectivity. Times have changed of course and us first-worlders now treat the Internet like any service that’s connected to our house. But none of this means that bandwidth is suddenly some infinite resource, any more than electricity or water is. And when you want to find out what’s consuming all your bandwidth, it’s actually a fairly tricky process.
Rubbernet’s job is to monitor all the network traffic in and out of your Mac. On the dashboard you get a summary of what’s running at that moment, a list of apps and their statuses, upstream and downstream charts and access to further computers you might be monitoring. This being a Lion-friendly app, you can view fullscreen (great for network monitoring stations) or resize the in-app windows as you see fit.
The main window displays the apps, their status (active, inactive or idle), which user ‘owns’ that app, download and upload rates, total data downloaded and uploaded and the last activity of that app. To keep tabs on your system, you can start Rubbernet when you start your Mac and just let it quietly record how much data each of your applications is consuming. It was something of an eye-opener for me to discover that I was getting through a couple of gigabytes of data in Firefox alone.
Rubbernet also enables you to isolate certain activities, such as Back To My Mac, Skype and the System. This is a great way of tracking down errant applications or processes that are eating up your precious bandwidth. I’d always wondered how much data Skype used and it turns out that it’s a pretty frugal sort of an application, while my web browser’s a data glutton.
If you want you can also monitor other Macs on your local network. To get everything set up you simply install a small system application on the target computer and you can connect to it when you first start Rubbernet. In this way it’s possible for a system admin to track data usage on individual Macs on the network – the connections tab is particularly useful in this regard because it enables you to view hosts, ports, apps and bandwidth usage.
If you need to do some network detective work because something’s consuming far too much bandwidth, then Rubbernet’s perfect for the job. It enables you to monitor everything that’s going out from and into your Mac or other Macs on your local network. It has a clean and easily read interface, a minimalist but carefully designed feature-list and a reasonable pricetag. Recommended.
Soulver – $25 – App Store
Like many people, I’m no maths whizz. Sure I can do standard multiplication and addition and I’ll even attempt a basic equation if you give me enough time, but I often struggle with things like percentages. And it was with just that in mind that the developers of Soulver decided to bring aid to mathematical knuckle-heads like me.
Soulver is what the developers call a ‘back of the envelope’ calculator. You know the sort of sums – like when you’re sitting in a car dealership desperately trying to work out what the real cost of that new car is. It enables you to phrase your calculations as you’d speak them.
So for instance you can type ‘$175-10%’ to find the markdown on an item, or ’35 as a % of 200′. The app works somewhat like a ready reckoner, keeping a running total of all your calculations at the bottom of the screen, so you can just use it to type in a long list of numbers and get a round total at the end.
Amongst Soulver’s neater features is a built-in realtime currency converter, a realtime calculator for stocks (such as 500AAPL), the use of variables and a full set of mathemetical functions (such as pi or COS). When you’ve finished your calculations you can output them in PDF or HTML format if required.
The natural language design of Soulver is a great way of doing sums without too much head-scratching. You can jot down your calculations as you think of them, labeling items with any text you want to use. If you struggle with real-world arithmetic, then Soulver’s the answer to your prayers. It’s available now in the App Store for $25USD.
Ever since Apple released the awesome Siri with the iPhone4S others have been scrambling to catch up. Microsoft had a go, Android developers tried their luck and various other existing iPhone devs pimped their talk-and-respond apps. But they were all, for the most part, shite – pale imitations that didn’t even come close to Siri’s accuracy, flexiblity and fact-finding capabilities.
The latest app to step in the ring with Siri and try its luck is Evi. I’d read good reviews of this app elsewhere and despite the huge number of one star reviews in the app store, I paid my dollar and downloaded it. First impressions were good, it sports a similarly simple interface to Siri and has a great layout with cool off-whites and dark grey dialog boxes.
So first I asked Evi what the current temperature was. I’d already given the app permission to access my phone’s location and thought it might check the weather and report back with a figure. Instead Evi suggested, “The web page might be useful for that Intellicast – Current Temperatures in United States“. Ermm great, firstly I’m in Australia, secondly I’d have liked an actual figure, not a link to a website.
Then I try one of the examples that the developers actually list when you first start the app. I asked, “Pubs near here”. Despite the fact that there are two pubs in my town, it couldn’t find them and suggested I check Yelp for results in a town 20km from here. Awesome. Since it had at least identified a town near here, I figured I’d find out what films were on there and the best Evi can do is a link to a film previews website. Rapidly losing the will to live, I asked Evi, “What films did Robert De Niro star in?” Evi did at least recognise the name Robert De Niro, but instead of serving up some useful information, gives me a link to De Niro’s entry in Wikipedia. Not very helpful.
Finally Evi gave up completely. Any search requests you try now are greeted with an apology from the developers that suggests that they massively underestimated the demand that would be placed on their question-and-response servers. Which isn’t really good enough. I hope they work the bugs out, but at the moment Evi’s about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
ReadNow – $4.00
Some applications that you can get on the Mac manage to redefine the software scene all on their own. One of those applications is called Reeder, an RSS newsreader with a gorgeous sophisticated interface. Since it came out numerous applications have modelled themselves on it, not all successfully.
ReadNow is a client for bookmarking services ReadItLater and Instapaper. It aims to provide the same slick environments for reading longer form articles that reader does for your RSS newsfeeds. Its usefulness or otherwise thus depends entirely on how often you bookmark interesting articles with ReadItLater and Instapaper. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that ReadItLater is free, while Instapaper is a subscription service. For what it’s worth I’ve been more than happy with my free ReadItLater account.
There’s little doubt, that Readnow gets closer to the high standards of Reeder than any other app has so far. It utilises the same triple column display, combined with excellent on-screen text rendering and a sophisticated article layout. On the left of the screen you can see your ReadItLater and Instapaper feeds, along with any tags you attached to them. In the middle pane is the actual article list, which can be arranged in date, title, URL or tag order. To read an article simply click on in the middle pane and it’s downloaded and rendered in the viewing pane on the right of the display.
There are several viewing styles for the viewing pane, but the best looking for my money is the default paper style. As you’re reading your chosen article, you can utilise the built-in gestures to move backwards and forwards through your bookmarks, archive bookmark or move backwards and forwards through your folders. If you want to, you can also send the article onwards again, to another service such as Twitter or Evernote.
I was initially unconvinced by the need for an app like ReadNow, but having spent a few weeks using it, I have to admit it’s one of my most regularly used applications. It’s a beautifully designed and eminently useful application that sits well alongside applications such as Reeder, Raven and Reddit HD. Its usefulness stems from the fact that you can differentiate those longer articles that take a bit more time to read and absorb, from shorter links such as news articles. If you’re a word junkie like me, then you’ll find it far nicer to use than the browser based versions of ReadItLater and Instapaper.
Update: Just noticed that Michael Schneider, ReadNow’s author, has pulled it from the app store for now due to an infringement letter. I’ll leave this review online in the hope that Michael resolves his legal difficulties and the app’s put back online.