Become a Customer Support Hero with Replies for Mac

Replies for Mac App

Are you among of the developers who spend more time replying to emails than adding more features to the app? New startups with small teams or individuals running the entire operation are often faced with the herculean task of providing support to the ever growing user base of the application. This is turn leaves less time to actually spend on developing the app. Ruben Bakkers, developer of Mailplane, decided to do something about it when his brilliant app garnered thousands of active users in a short time. Pestered with support emails, Bakkers designed the Replies App for Mac back in 2009 for personal use. He discovered how most of his replies were repetitive and that a considerable amount of time was wasted in rewriting them. Bakkers recently launched Replies for Mac commercially and we decided to take it out for a spin.

The biggest feature of Replies is the ability to search content within old replies and reuse it. All replies sent using the app are broken down into chunks of reusable snippets that you can be later inserted into a new reply. A new reply starts off with a default greeting at the top, signature at the bottom and the snippet box in the middle. Esc is the shortcut key to search for previous replies and selectively add content from them into the new reply. Attachments that were part of the reply can be imported too. In addition to that, you can add attachments by using the drag and drop feature or via the file browser window. More snippets can be added to the reply by using the Cmd + Return shortcut. Alternatively, an icon to insert snippet pops up when the cursor is placed in-between a word space or around a link break. Content reusability makes a lot of sense for customer support and Replies does a good job at helping you find the right content and insert it at the right place.

Personalization to a mail helps build relationships with the customers and  Replies keeps that in mind. It loads recent conversations with a customer that makes it easier to add personal details to the body of the mail. It never hurts to have the undo button in a mail application. With Replies, you can not only undo the send mail action for a few seconds after sending the reply but also undo other tasks such as dismissing a draft or archiving a message.

Replies has a three-pane user interface that Sparrow for Mac users will be familiar with. Left pane lists all the folders, middle pane displays the email subjects and its preview snippet, with the full email content being shown in the rightmost column. The folders in the leftmost pane are sorted according to priority; helping you respond to important mails quickly. This is pretty  much like the Priority Inbox feature that Gmail has; but only better.  Folders can be made smarter by applying a bunch of filters to have them sort the mail intelligently. Any new folders created using the app are synced across to the server. Another really handy feature is the ability to mark messages as pending or resolved. All these small things help you save a great deal of time in the long run.

Customer support can become a challenging task when the number of active users grow rapidly for an app. Replies not only helps you save time but also lets you send personalized and detailed messages to every customer. A lot of thought has gone into the Replies app and it is a good solid app to deploy for your customer support needs. The app comes with Full-screen support for Lion and after spending the last few days with the app, I can vouch for its stability and usability. Customer support junkies might find the app lacking advanced features but there’s only so much you can expect from the first release. For someone who develops and handles customer support for an app independently, Replies is a godsend and there isn’t better investment for your company than spending $79.99 for this app. Organizational licenses are available for $129.99 a piece. Go grab it now and show off your customer support superpowers!

Flipboard for iPhone Now Available

Flipboard for iPhone Now Available →

The much awaited update to Flipboard — the one that was supposed to bring support for iPhone is now available in the App Store.

The update, v1.7 is now a universal app running on your iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. This update also brings along a feature exclusive to the iPhone (for now) called Cover Stories — a curated collection of content being shared with you.

With Flipboard for iPhone we’re introducing Cover Stories — one place to quickly catch up on some of the most interesting news, updates and photos being shared with you right now. The more you interact with your friends and the stories being shared, the smarter Cover Stories gets. You can refine what appears here by adding content to your Flipboard, muting anyone you’d rather not hear from, and connecting to your social networks. Cover Stories will be coming to your iPad in the near future.

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p>Go ahead and grab Flipboard from the App Store. It’s Free.

PopClip for Mac

PopClip for Mac

Last year, Apple announced OS X Lion at its ‘Back to the Mac’ event. The focus of the event was how Apple had learnt from iOS and managed to improve OS X by incorporating features from it into Lion. The developers at Pilotmoon Software decided to take cue from it and went a step ahead further and brought the familiar Copy/Paste bar from iOS to OS X with PopClip for Mac.

PopClip is a neat little bar that makes copying/pasting text faster and easier on your Mac. One doesn’t have to jump to the keyboard right after selecting a piece of text to be able to copy it. The bar pops up after selecting the text and lets you copy it with a single click. Press and hold the mouse button for a fraction of a second and the paste icon jumps out of thin air, letting you place your copied text right at that cursor position. The size of the bar can be adjusted in the preferences. Apart from the cut/copy/paste functionality, the developers have added some interesting new features to the bar in the latest version. It now has web search, URL opening, spelling and dictionary integrated. Selected text can be searched on the web with a single click using the search button on the bar. If the selected text is a URL, clicking the link icon opens the link in the browser. The dictionary and spelling feature is self-explanatory. It would have been magical if clicking the dictionary button on the bar popped up the inline dictionary than open the Dictionary app. I hope that is something the developers consider bringing to the app in one of its next iterations.

The Copy/Paste bar was truly a revolutionary feature for iOS when it was first introduced. Looking back, you wonder why Apple themselves didn’t bring it to OS X Lion. Some might argue that sometimes the bar is bit intrusive on OS X as it pops up when you don’t expect it to and they do have a point, but leaving aside this small niggle, it has definitely enhanced my user experience on OS X. If you don’t like the bar popping up when working with apps like Photoshop, just include such apps in the ‘Excluded apps’ list in PopClip preferences. PopClip works with OS X 10.6.6 or later. It is available for $4.99 in the Mac App Store. A double thumbs up to the Pilotmoon Software team for this must-have nifty little app!

Justin Williams on iPad Magazines

Justin Williams on iPad Magazines →

Justin Williams, developer of popular apps like Elements and Today, shares his experience of trying to read his favorite magazines on his iPad:

Remember, kids. The first rule of App Club is that no one gives a fuck about your brand. A splash screen with a giant logo is something that makes editors and marketing directors feel good, but to a user it just feels like a meaningless delay. You know that feeling of frustration you get each time there’s a 15-second preroll before a video on the web? That’s what a splash screen with logos and advertisements is.

A lot of magazines available on the App Store suffer with the same issues Justin outlines above. I have personally tried apps like India Today and GG — none of which impressed me.

50% Off on all AgileBits Products

50% Off on all AgileBits Products →

1Password is one of the first apps I install on a Mac and highly recommend to anyone who is serious about the security of their online presence. Heck, we’ve written extensively about 1Password here on Smoking Apples various times in the past here, here and here. The fine folks at AgileBits are having a “Thanks-To-You” Sale wherein all their products are 50% off. If you’ve held off on your purchase and needed a reason, let this be it.

If you use the following links to purchase the apps, you’ll be supporting us as well.

Reflecting back on iPhone 4S

Reflecting back on iPhone 4S

It’s been a month since the iPhone 4S launched, selling four million units on the first weekend itself making it the most successful launch ever. I was among the ones who woke up till 3am to pre-order mine when Apple opened the doors to pre-orders on Oct 7. Surprisingly, I ended up ordering through AT&T’s site after grappling with Apple’s Online Store for an hour without any luck. The next week was tough, waiting for it to ship and on the launch day the wait for the FedEx guy to deliver the iPhone was excruciating but in the end it was worth the wait. There were no activation issues for me and it has been smooth sailing since and my love for Siri has crossed appropriate bounds.

A lot was said and written about the 4S when it was announced as people expected a lot more from this upgrade but an enhanced camera and goodness of Siri were more than enough to keep me interested in going for it. With one month completed, I can safely say that I haven’t been disappointed a single bit with my purchase. The appearance of the 4S might not be the talking point but there’s a lot has changed on the inside that makes 4S worth the upgrade. Right from out of the box PC free experience to the intelligence of Siri , iPhone 4S has a lot to offer. Let’s start with Siri, the most talked about feature on the 4S.

The magic of Siri

Siri is a delight to use. I had my reservations about Siri recognizing an Indian accent but it does a decent job. There are times when I have to speak my query twice to make it understand, but most of the times I get it correct in the first go. The trick lies in speaking a tad bit slower than what we Indians normally do. I(and probably every iPhone 4S owner) spent the first few days thinking of clever things to ask Siri and then watch it turn up with funny answers only to post it on the web. Those few days playing with Siri were totally fun but we’re back to business now and she’s the best personal assistant you could’ve asked for. Siri does an excellent job at crunching complex queries to return meaningful results. So be it getting directions to a new restaurant in town or setting up reminders, Siri can handle it all with ease. The ability to pull data from WolframAlpha to answer queries is really cool. Dictation is another awesome feature and the list doesn’t end here. You’ll need to use it to experience the awesomeness that Siri is. Reliability though is an issue and network problems crop up every once in a while and that is probably the reason Apple decided to give the service a beta tag. iOS 5.1 is rumored to add more features to Siri such as toggling WiFi/Bluetooth switches, taking photos/videos and other neat stuff. Once you’ve gotten used to Siri, there’s no looking back as it has already become an indispensable part of your life. 

Everything’s snappier with A5

Addition of dual-core A5 processor to the iPhone is a big upgrade that hasn’t gotten enough attention. The power of the A5 is noticeable when you launch an app and it opens up in a flash. The camera app is the perfect example for A5′s horsepower whose performance has increased manifold in the 4S. It now takes less than a second to launch the camera and take a picture. Also, app switching is faster than ever before and the cold start time has plummeted to an all-time low. Safari has also gained significantly with the A5 upgrade making the browsing experience oh-so-much better. The super quick Safari launch coupled with fast rendering of web pages, makes it a delight to use. I cannot emphasize enough the fact that A5 is a huge upgrade for the iPhone and you realize that only after a hands-on experience with the 4S.

Smartphone camera revolutionized

The whole camera system on the iPhone has received a significant upgrade with the 4S. It’s not just the megapixel bump that is the big feature here but the new backlit sensor combined with the power of A5 has led to a revolutionary new camera. The backlit sensor has greatly improved the low-light capability of the camera. Super-quick snapshots meant that I was able to capturenon-blurry pictures even while walking at a normal pace. The pictures turned out great not just because of the new hardware in place but also due to a much better image processing algorithm that now works its magic on the images. There’s also face detection capability added for automatic exposure balance across up to 10 faces. New optics, megapixel bump, face detection, faster and improved image processing combined with the ability to edit photos built within the Photos app makes it the best smartphone camera out there and you couldn’t have asked for more.

iOS 5: Goodness redefined

iOS 5 is the goodness that makes everything happen on the iPhone. It was demoed back in June at WWDC and became fit for public consumption on Oct 12. A lot has changed since iOS 4 and some of the more notable changes include a Notification Center, iMessage, Newsstand, Reminders app, iCloud, twitter integration and enhanced Photos, Mail and Calendar apps. Notification Center takes a leaf out of Android’s book with a strikingly similar implementation of a pull-down menu displaying aggregated notifications. It gets rids of the annoying popups that have haunted users for a long time to pave the way for a smoother iOS experience. iMessage is probably the best new feature of iOS 5 that lets you send messages to fellow iOS 5 users without having to incur carrier text costs. iMessage is beautifully integrated within the Messages app and as soon as you punch in a number/email ID, iOS 5 uses some kind of black magic to determine if the user is on iOS 5 and sends him/her an iMessage rather than a text over the cellular network. I’ve already gotten rid of AT&T’s $20 unlimited text plan, such is the power of iMessage. Reminders is Apple’s home-brewed To-Do app that is integrated with Siri. It has a rather simple interface that does the job but I feel it lacks the finesse that one generally expects from Apple apps. Twitter integration to iOS is a neat addition and it compose tweets directly from Safari, Photos, Camera, YouTube, or Maps. Avid newspaper and magazine readers will love the Newsstand app, a hub for organizing all your subscriptions in one place.

Summing it up

There are however, a few things where the 4S could have improved upon. Battery life, iOS 5 issues aside, hasn’t improved over the previous iPhone. The usage time remains the same but the standby time has been cut down to two-thirds which is clearly evident in daily use. I haven’t been able to make the battery last couple of days on normal use which I managed to do on a regular basis with the iPhone 4. There have been rumors that iOS 5.0.2 might fix this, so let’s wait for the update before making a final judgement on it. Talking about the form factor, I totally loved the iPhone 4 redesign and wasn’t disappointed to see 4S arrive in the same avatar though I was secretly hoping it would shed a few grams. On the contrary, it gained an extra three grams leaving me a little heartbroken. Other than these small quirks, iPhone 4S is a neat upgrade over the iPhone 4. iPhone 3GS/3G  users looking to upgrade should do it in a jiffy. iPhone 4 users might not be interested in having an improved camera or a faster processor but Siri is surely a good enough reason to take the plunge. I’d say do it.

Fav.tv – Browse TV shows the smarter way

Fav.tv app

The much awaited Fall season is finally here and it brings along with it plethora of great TV shows that we have been eagerly waiting for. I am still livid at the Emmy jury panel for not awarding ‘Community’ with an Emmy but that will not deter me from watching and wholeheartedly supporting the show. Community is one of the few TV shows that I follow but keeping track of them can become a serious headache. There is nothing more frustrating than missing out on the much awaited episode of your favorite TV show. Today we take a look at Fav.tv, an app that not only helps you keep track of your favorite TV shows but also blends in social features to enhance your TV viewing experience.

Fav.tv web app has been in closed beta since a couple of months but a few days back it opened its doors to everyone while throwing in a slick iOS app in the mix. The Fav.tv iOS app and the web service in general, are heavily inspired from Facebook in a good way. The iOS app has an interface quite similar to the Facebook app sans all the bugs and crashes. There are quite a few things that cannot be accomplished from the iOS app and for those you’re forced to use the web app. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the web app is equally well designed featuring some yummy pixels that make you wanna lick your screen.

At iOS app launch, you’re greeted with five red blocks that represent five different sections of the app and a search bar. The search bar lets you quickly search for TV shows and from the show information page you can follow a show or pin it to the front page for quick access. The episodes for a show are neatly listed in the ‘Episodes’ tab. The ‘Activity’ tab is where all the buzz about a show is hidden. In there, you’ll find updates from other users of the Fav.tv service specific to a TV show. Fav.tv has developed this smart algorithm that runs in the background that scans for words/phrases that might relate to a TV show when you post an update on the service and collates them in the ‘Activity’ tab. In case you were wondering, Fav.tv does let you post Facebook like statuses to the service. One can follow other users to get a feed of their updates and also take a sneak peek at the shows they’re currently interested in. Messages can be exchanged between users; a feature that seems a bit of an overkill for a web service that is in its nascent stages. Notifications have been implemented in an interesting fashion by allocating them a dedicated screen left of the main screen; something that Facebook should definitely take a cue from.

Once you have followed a bunch of shows, Fav.tv gets to work and finds the latest episodes aired and places them in the ‘Queue’ section. So if you have missed out on an episodes, this is place to dig them out. If you’ve already seen them, mark them as watched and leave a comment for the community to see. Sadly, Fav.tv does not tell you when an episode will air again, so you’re on your own on that front. But to make sure you do not miss out on any upcoming episodes, Fav.tv has a dedicated ‘What’s On’ section in the app. Tap that and select ‘My shows’ to see which of your shows are airing today. Of course you can select the ‘All shows’ option to see shows currently being aired. There is a neat calendar bar at the bottom using which you can browse the schedule for the whole month. The app also packs in some nifty animations that greatly enhance the overall app experience.

Reminders is another powerful feature of the service accessible through the web app that allows you to setup email/text message notifications to be sent before a TV show goes on air. Searching for friends using the iOS app isn’t possible but I hear the latest update fixes that. Profile editing using the iOS app is also limited. The web app is an excellent companion to the iOS app as it presents interesting scoops and tidbits from the TV industry. Fav.tv on the whole has made a great beginning but it lacks Twitter/Facebook integration hence making user discovery a tough task. One good thing about Fav.tv is that it did not adopt Foursquare like check-in model that a lot of apps in the same category have implemented. This reduces clutter in your activity feed and I feel posting comments about the show is a much better way to build up interaction with the community. In hindsight, the iOS and the web apps complement each other beautifully and you’ll end up using both on a daily basis. The best part is that neither the app or the service cost a dime making it a must-have app on your iOS device if you’re a TV fanatic like me. Go grab it now!

Piolo — A Tiny Little Stand for your iPhone 4

Piolo iPhone 4 Stand

In our last post about the Instagram Apps for the Mac, I sneaked in a little peek at The Piolo. There are already quite a few stands for the iPhone out there. I personally own the Glif and the Moviepeg. But when we received the delivery of this tiny little iPhone thing, I automatically set the former two aside and this became my primary iPhone stand.

The Piolo is a tiny little stand specially designed for iPhone 4. It is manufactured out of Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) — essentially a mix of plastic and rubber and was designed by Andrew Bond, an Industrial Designer in Sheffied, UK. The stand is very tiny, just slightly longer than an average sized key. It measures 65mm x 17mm x 7mm and has a slot in which you insert your iPhone 4. There’s even a hole given for you to hang it into you keychain — which is very nifty when you’re out and about. It has a matte finish and seems very durable as well. When on a desk, it really compliments the iPhone 4.

I’ve been using the Piolo for a few months now and I really quite like it. I carry two on me — one in my keychain for when I’m traveling and feel the need to just lay down the phone to watch something and another one that has a permanent spot on my desk.

But the best thing about the Piolo is its price. The Piolo sells for just £4 (plus shipping), which is about US$6 or €4.50. There are multiple colors to choose from, including a pack of two, three and four. They ship in tiny black envelopes and have card inserts that read “Thank you very much”. The Piolo comes highly recommended from me if you’re looking for a simple, cute, no-frills stand for your iPhone 4.

Instagram Apps for Mac Put Under the Scanner

Instagram for Mac Roundup

Instagram’s popularity is something that remains a big mystery to me (and Aayush, too) considering it only allows iPhone users to upload photos. The service has taken off like a rocket and the onus of bringing it to other platofrms has been put on third-party developers. Instadesk was the first app to take the leap for the Mac platform, but apps like Carousel and Instaview have also made their way onto OS X. Let’s take a look at these three Instagram apps for Mac today and see how they fare.

Instadesk– Meritorious but Humdrum

Instadesk was the first Instagram app for the Mac after they released an API for third-party developers. Taking full advantage of the API, Instadesk brings the whole Instagram experience to the Mac (except photo uploads, which the API doesn’t allow yet).

Unlike the other two apps we’re reviewing, features a conventional & typical native Mac app look and UI. It more-or-less reminds me of LittleSnapper with its placing of different sources in the Sidebar. The sidebar on the left gives you quick access to your own Feed, the Popular feed, Tags and News. The photos are laid out nicely in a grid layout against a dark background. Clicking on a photo opens it up in its glorious full-size, and information about the photo is displayed in a sidebar on the right this time. Here, you can view the Comments/Likes a photo as received, as well as leave your own comment. Icons in the toolbar up top allow you to Like, Share, Download or Open the photo in the browser. You can browse through the different photos using the arrow icons or even your keyboard.

Instadesk also has a nifty slideshow feature that runs fullscreen and gives you a bunch of transition options to choose from. My desktop setup consists of a 15″ MacBook Pro connected to a 24″ Apple Cinema Display, and Instadesk allows me to run the slideshow in my secondary display while the primary display is left for other apps. You can even ‘Like’ a photo if you want and quickly get back to where you were, without interrupting the slideshow.

Overall, while Instadesk is a great app, it feels a little unpolished to me. Having tried the other two apps in the post as well, I’d personally much prefer the custom, streamlined look of those apps than this native, full-blown look. So while Instadesk is functionally great, the UI keeps me from recommending it to anyone. It is available on the Mac App Store for $1.99.

Carousel – Instagram for Mac Swiss Knife

Carousel wasn’t the first Instagram client for Mac to hit the market but it surely is the best one yet. Carousel takes the traditional approach to display your Instgaram feed in a slick and elegant UI resembling a photo album. The interface is almost a no-brainer and using it is child’s play. There are five buttons along the bottom that toggle your view between the feed, favorites, your photos, likes and a search feature introduced in the first point update to the app. The search tab lets you lookup users or even tags which is bound to appease the twitterati.

Each image in the feed is presented with the person’s avatar, timestamp and the location, provided  geolocation was turned on while taking the picture. Tapping the avatar/username takes you to the user’s profile but the best part is how Carousel presents a feed of images geolocated around the same area when you click the location on an image. I almost jumped up in glee when I first stumbled upon this feature. One can Like a photo by pressing the heart or comment on it by tapping the word bubble. Both these actions bring up a iPad-like popover that shows people who’ve liked the photo or commented on it, but you can skip the popovers by using the option-click modifier.

Carousel supports multi-touch gestures and also features a number of keyboard shortcuts that further simplify the app’s usability. Photos can be viewed in Preview by hitting the spacebar. This also means you can use Preview’s full screen feature to make the photo occupy all of your screen’s real estate. Other than this, you can save the photos to your Mac by using the good old Command-S keyboard shortcut. Notifications are available in the form of an icon badge and Growl is also supported. One can set the auto-refresh interval in the settings but there’s a refresh button in the app that lets you manually do the job. The app ships with a bunch of themes to give a refreshing new look to your feed.

The latest update brought with it the ability to pin tags, locations and people to the search tab making it easier to keep track of things you like. Carousel does a brilliant job at bringing the perfect Instagram experience to the Mac which justifies the $4.99 price tag it comes attached with. It is only limited by the Instagram API which currently does not allow users to upload images from third-party applications.

Instaview – Peppy and Fun

Instaview is the latest kid on the block in the Instagram for Mac arena. It takes a whole new approach towards displaying the Instagram feed on your Mac. Instaview, rather than presenting photos from people you follow in a single feed, lets create multiple windows showing different Instagram streams. So what is an Instagram stream, you may ask? A stream can be constituted by any one of the following–a user’s photos, photos you’ve liked, popular photos, located based photos or photos with a hashtag.

The stream is encapsulated within a photo frame to give it an old-fashioned look. There are a bunch of frames to choose from but I personally love the ‘Metal Stand’ and the ‘Wide Wood’ ones. Photo information such as likes, comments, timestamp etc. is hidden in an overlay which is shown with a mouse hover. This saves space without compromising on functionality and I definitely prefer it over Carousel’s implementation. Instaview comes with multi-touch support and a customizable interface which certainly can be improved upon. Just like Carousel, you can view and save full size images in Instaview. As far as notifications are concerned, badge on the icon and little paper in the corner of a stream are the two ways of getting notified of unveiled photos.

Slideshow is the big weapon in Instaview’s armory. The individual streams suddenly start making a lot more sense with slideshow. As the name suggests, you can cycle through images in a particular stream by putting it on slideshow. The duration and sequence of the images can be tweaked in the slideshow options. If you come to think of your Mac as a living room, then these slideshows would be the digital photo frames decorating it.

RougeSheep likes to believe that users would enjoy multiple streams–and slideshows, of course–more than a single integrated feed but I’m not totally sold on the idea. It is certainly fun at times, but the clutter it creates on the desktop isn’t very pleasing to the eye. It is definitely not something you’d like to have when you’re trying to be productive. Although Instaview does let you view your Instagram feed in a single stream, if you wish to view favorites, popular photos or other such stuff, then creating multiple streams is your only option. On the whole, Instaview takes an aggressive approach towards Instagram and the initial reviews in the Mac App Store have been encouraging. You can grab the app for $4.99 from there.

The native-full blown look of Instadesk seems a bit too overwhelming for a simple app providing access to a photo-sharing service. Instaview is the more fun and peppy way of going through your Instagram feed and I’m sure it’ll find its own niche of users.
I however prefer the simple yet beautiful Carousel interface that houses all Instagram features under a single roof without creating clutter on my desktop. Instadesk is the cheapest way to go about things but both Instaview and Carousel retail for the same price, so take your pick wisely.

Team Smoking Apples talks about OS X Lion

Thoughts on OS X Lion

It has now been two-weeks ago since Apple opened the cage doors and let out a roaring lion to the masses. We’re hopeful that we prepared you enough to get all set to install OS X Lion onto your Macs and welcome the bucket loads of new features that it brought along. Here at Smoking Apples, the team has spent the last several days immersed in curiosity and excitement exploring everything that Apple’s latest and great OS had to offer and have taken some time to outline our thoughts about OS X Lion.

Ankur Gupta:

When Apple released the Magic Trackpad back in July ’10, it made little sense to get one until Apple took the wraps off Lion at the ‘Back to Mac’ event in Oct ’10. While some might say Magic Mouse does the job just fine, it only offers a peak into the glorious world of Lion filled with multi-touch gestures, natural scrolling, iOS-type scrollbars and other neat tricks lifted straight from iOS. These are best enjoyed using a Trackpad and I cannot emphasize this fact enough.

I’ve had access to Lion on my iMac all along the releases of the Developer Previews and I have had a love-hate relationship with it. I’m not a big fan of the rubber-band scrolling. It is intrusive and slows down your productivity as content takes time to roll into position. iOS-style scrollbars or scrollers have also intruded into Lion. These monochrome narrow lozenges appear only when scrolling action is taking place and disappear few moments after it completes. Yes, they do save space but they are overlap the content and that annoys the <redacted> out of me. What’s worse is that there is no way to turn either of these effects off. Moreover, I struggled getting accustomed to natural scrolling; but the Magic Mouse isn’t the right device to take the plunge anyway, in my opinion.

Moving on, Lion has way more good stuff to counter all that I’ve outlined above and it begins with Mission Control. I’ve never been a pro-active user of Spaces but Mission Control has been a game changer for me. It has simplified Space and window management so much that is has forced me to accommodate Spaces in my workflow. Some of the other Lion features that have caught my fancy include Auto Save and Versioning. Cmd-S shortcut has lost its mojo with Auto Save feature that automatically creates a snapshot virtually every time you make a change to a document. Versions maintains the track record of all the changes that have been made and you can go back in time to restore a particular version of a document. What’s really impressive is that all this stuff takes place in the background without the folder getting cluttered with multiple copies of the same file.

A lot of apps have gotten substantial upgrades and Safari is my favorite among them. Full screen mode, integrated Downloads window and much better memory management are good enough to prevent me from embarking on the Chrome ship. The Reading List feature might interest a few but Instapaper users like me will dismiss it in a single glance. Mail has risen like a phoenix with a revamped look and dozens of new features but I prefer Sparrow Mail as it offers better Gmail integration. Being an ardent Fantastical user, the new iCal does not impress me either. Preview too has received several subtle changes and I absolutely love the refreshed look that it dons. Finally, Finder too has received some love from Apple and it ditches the archaic look to flaunt a monochrome sidebar. The ‘All My Files’ is a nice addition that aggregates files in a single place. There are always subtle changes that blow your mind away. One such thing is the transformation of multi-item selections into a neat compressed list-view representation from the earlier near invisible image of the source. Also, the new ‘Arrange By’ option that neatly sorts files into groups is more than handy. One quirk that remains in Finder is the completely random view-state that a folder is presented in. Finder behaves like a truant providing no clue what view to expect leaving you with no option but to manually set things right.

Lion replaced Snow Leopard a week ago on my primary system, but I’m still adapting to it. With Apple incorporating so many changes, Lion presents a learning curve even for seasoned OS X users. I had to toggle some switches back to Snow Leopard state to feel comfortable with Lion and it will be a while before I can convince myself to turn them back to their original state. Lion with full screen app support opens a whole new world of opportunity for developers and it will be interesting to see what they make of it. With Lion one can almost sense that touchscreen Macs are going to be the next big thing from Apple. OS X Lion (or OS X Monochrome as I like to call it) is a big step by Apple and I’d like to believe it is in the right direction.

Chaitanya Adgaonkar:

Mac OS X Lion is undoubtedly the most important OS upgrade in Apple’s history. With Lion, Apple has taken quite a few bold steps.

Upgrade:

To begin with, the only medium through which Lion was made available to the public was via the App Store, to be downloaded as an “Upgrade” to your current OS. I think it’s great that Apple took this decision. I may have used the SuperDrive on my MacBook Pro only once in the last two years. It’s time for Optical Media to go away, and Apple has hammered the first nail in the coffin. The upgrade process was smooth as it has always been, and I was playing around with Lion and its features about an hour after the download started.

Back to the Mac:

The second major step was the merging of iOS elements into OS X — what Apple likes to call ‘Back to the Mac’. Today, iOS devices make up the majority of Apple’s sales and customers. For many a customers, their iOS devices are also their first Apple product purchase. The popularity of iOS has also sparked interest in other Apple products, the most important of them being the Mac. More and more iOS users are switching to the Mac and with Lion, Apple is doing its best to make these users feel at home. The ‘natural’ scrolling, autocorrect, Resume may feel odd to old-time Mac users, but these new converts will feel very comfortable with all this. Personally, I love all the new system features. AutoSave and Versions will specially come handy while writing those long papers in school. Autocorrect annoys me a bit right now, but I am getting used to it. The other big feature is the Mac App Store. iOS users love that they can install applications with a single tap, and now the same is possible on OS X too. Launchpad is another addition to Lion catering specifically to the converts. Personally, I have a lot of apps installed, and Launchpad actually makes my app launching experience more difficult.

Apps:

My favorite apps on OS X have always been TextEdit and Preview and in Lion, both these apps have received great updates. TextEdit has a much cleaner interface and the formatting bar got a well deserved makeover. Preview on the other hand now has fullscreen support, which is great for reading PDF notes without any distraction. The notes and highlight features have also been updated. The updates to other system apps on the other hand haven’t impressed me much. Mail has received an update and it is much better than before, but like Ankur, I decided to stick to Sparrow. The apps that have received the most amount of criticism have been iCal and Address Book and I find myself agreeing here. While the calendar views in iCal look fine, it’s the window that annoys me. I find myself clicking on the bits of torn paper at the border, trying my best to get rid of them. Address Book on the other hand is even worse. Remember the last time you scrolled on page in a real life book? No? Well, someone at Apple did. Address Book UI makes no sense to me. Also, why does clicking on a book-mark flip the page? Yes, I know it brings me to the group view, but the clicking on bookmark part makes no sense. If the two pane view wasn’t bad enough, there is another single pane view which is even more ridiculous. I understand that Apple is using real life metaphors in UI to make the experience easier for users, but they should work on matching the actions for real life use too. The Address Book was just fine in Snow Leopard and I was quite disappointed by this part of the update. Safari feels much faster. Most of the Safari updates have been under the hood, and the improved performance is quite evident. iTunes 10.4 is now a 64-bit Cocoa app which is a very welcome move, but I haven’t noticed any improvement in Performance. iChat was largely ignored in the Lion update with unified contact list being the only feature worth mentioning.

General:

Mission Control essentially unifies Exposé and Spaces. I never used Spaces on Snow Leopard, and I don’t find myself using Mission Control either. The Dictionary app got an update, and now includes a British Dictionary and Thesaurus. This might not be important to you, but as a guy who puts petrol in his car and not gas, this is a very welcome move. Finder got a few updates too. Search has been improved, but my favorite feature has to be ‘Group selected files in a folder’. Lion also includes system wide support for full screen Apps. I don’t see myself using full screen apps regularly, but full screen might work great for production/editing apps like Aperture and iMovie so I am going to give it a try.

Lion is just the beginning though. iCloud is set to launch this fall, and I think that is going to change a lot of things. Lion marks a very important step in Apple’s history where it began unifying it’s platforms, and if this is the direction we are going in, I am extremely excited to see what we have for store in us in the future.

Preshit Deorukhkar:

I have been a Mac user for 5 years now. My first purchase was a Mac Mini running Mac OS X Tiger. Since then, I’ve spent many hours working with OS X always powering my primary machine and have had the privilege of almost never bothering to work on a Windows machine. OS X has been a remarkable resource of some of the most fantastically developed apps. Whenever I’ve felt that something’s missing in my workflow, there’s always an app for OS X that fills that gap.

Of course, when iOS came into the picture, it was a different story altogether.

Even though I’m a technology writer by profession, I still consider myself to be an “Apple enthusiast” at heart. So every Apple event has always been like Christmas where Santa brings us gifts. So like I have always done, this time too, I made sure that I unsubscribed from most of the Apple feeds in Reeder — I like to enjoy every bit of announcement that’s made on the stage. And boy was it worth it.

As Ankur and Chaitanya have already outlined above, OS X Lion brings a lot of features, ideas, technologies and UI elements from iOS to the Mac. I love the subtle overhaul the OS has received in different places. The aqua scrollbars had started to annoy me in Snow Leopard, so I welcome the new iOS-style scrollbars in Lion. Unlike Ankur, I am not bothered by the Rubber Band scrolling.

Even though I own a MacBook Pro, it’s permanently connected to a 24″ Apple Cinema Display. I also use a Magic Mouse (Or a Logitech Performance Mouse M950 at times), so I’m missing out on the goodness of Mutitouch Gestures that everyone has been raving about. But is that bothering me? Not at all. I like what the Magic Mouse is capable of and I’m happy using it. Even if I did have a trackpad, I’m sure I’d have never used most of the multitouch gestures.

The other most-talked-about feature in Lion is Fullscreen Apps. The only app I seem to really use in that mode is Safari. May be it’s the big Cinema Display, but nothing makes me want to push my apps to fill up the entire screen. The same is also true for Mission Control and Launchpad — I never use it. I wasn’t a user of Spaces, so this shouldn’t be surprising. But having talked to my non-techy friends, this seems to be the “OMG this is so cool” feature of Lion, along with the wonderful Mac App Store and its ability to download apps with a couple of clicks.

Autosave, Versions and Resume are wonderful features though. I like the fact that three of my favorite features in Lion are also the ones that do their thing in the background, without bothering the user. This has made working in TextEdit, Preview and iWork apps a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t want to think about going back to pre-Lion machine ever again.

If you ask Team Smoking Apples, I’m considered to be the ‘Email whore’. I seem to have a thing for emails, and love receiving and responding to them. I had briefly converted over to Sparrow Mail app, but I’m back to using the native Mail.app in Lion. The interface overhaul along with the brilliant new features were impossible to resist.

All that said, I think OS X Lion has to be one of the most fantastic piece of software to come out of Cupertino and yet, it just lays the foundation for some wonderful things to come our way. The amount of thought and handwork that has gone into the OS is commendable. Lion has received a lot of flak for oversimplifying things for power users, but we tend to forget that these power users form only a minor part of the Mac user base. If you look around, or spend 45 minutes at your local Apple Store, you’ll find out that to the majority of Apple’s user base, what Apple has been doing with its products is nothing short of incredible.

Embellish your Music Library with Tagalicious

Tagalicious

Album Artwork got a whole new meaning when Apple debuted the Coverflow UI half a decade ago. It seemed like an awesome way to browse through your albums until you found out that half the songs in your iTunes library lacked album artwork or did not have the proper metadata. It is a struggle to dig up metadata/artwork and manually add it to individual songs. Tagalicious steps in here and makes it a pain free one-click process. It beautifies your library by fetching metadata, artwork and lyrics for your songs with a single click. If you get your songs from shady places, your iTunes library desperately needs a Tagalicious makeover.

Tagalicious features a three-column interface wherein the left-most column houses the library and the playlists, songs occupy the middle column while the existing and fetched metadata/artwork is displayed in the right-most column. One of the best features of Tagalicious is batch-lookup. Select a bunch of songs or your entire library for that matter and Tagalicious will scour the web for tags for the selected songs. Songs whose details have been grabbed, display a circular badge with three-dots. The badge shows a red exclamation mark for songs whose data could not be fetched. Once the new tags have been pulled from the web, you can mix and match between already existing metadata and the new one. So for instance, you can select the track name, artist, genre from the fetched metadata but retain the album name. That brings us to the question, why would you ever want to do that? Tagalicious uses intelligent algorithm to detect songs, pretty much similar to Shazam, but it’s not perfect. Songs sometimes make their way into multiple albums and this is where the conspiracy begins. I might have the whole album but Tagalicious cunningly detects one of the songs as part of another album. This brings us to the point about trusting Tagalicious judgement. I would say Tagalicious gets it accurate 95% of the time. There might be few cases like the one I mentioned above, but overall it does a fine job.


Another quirk in the app is how the album artwork is automatically selected for a song. There is no uniformity and songs from same album sometimes get tagged with artwork of different resolution. Also there is no way to let Tagalicious know that I prefer a 500 x 500px image as album cover or the highest resolution one it can find. It randomly selects one even though I might already have a higher resolution one added which freaks me out. It does let me select from a bunch of images it has gathered from around the web, which just about saves the day. Lyrics are found only for a few tracks but I’m not complaining as RIAA in the past has cracked down against lyrics posted online. In short, to have a perfectly tagged library, you will have to browse through the fetched tags to find any discrepancies and rectify them. But with an easy to use interface and high accuracy, the desire of having a perfectly tagged music library is no longer a distant dream.

Tagalicious v1.5.2 works perfectly well on both Lion and Snow Leopard. Mac App Store currently stocks v1.5.1 but the latest version, submitted 10 days ago by the little app factory, should be approved very soon. One feature that I’d love to see added in Tagalicious is manual editing of metadata. Although you can do that in iTunes itself, but switching to iTunes to do the dirty job kind of kills the whole purpose of using a separate app for the task. There might be a few glitches but the app on the whole works amazing well and is retails for $9.99 on the Mac App Store. Highly recommended if you have a messed up iTunes library.

Lion cooks up a sumptuous Indian meal

Lion cooks up a sumptuous Indian meal

Apple introduced 250+ new features in Lion but only a few of them hogged the limelight during the launch. It’s always fun to explore a new OS and go out on mini-adventure trips hunting for new features buried somewhere deep inside the dungeons of System Preferences and other dark places. And while doing that, you have those ‘Eureka’ moments reassuring you of your time well spent. In this post we’ll be looking at some of the features that are targeted towards Indian users. A bunch of Indian regional languages have made their way into Input Sources, there is built in support for the Rupee symbol but the best of them all is the addition to two Indian voices to the Text to Speech engine. Let’s look at each one of them in detail and how you can enjoy them on your Lion installation.

Rupee Symbol gets Recognition

Support for the new Rupee symbol is now built right into Lion. The Rupee symbol that had been assigned the Unicode ‘U+20A8′, is now part of the Lion’s ‘Special Characters’ inventory. Inserting the symbol is easy as a pea. Bring up the ‘Special Characters’ dialog by using the Command-option-T keyboard shortcut. Navigate to ‘Currency Symbols’ on the left and the sixth character in there is the Rupee Sign. The official ‘₹’ symbol is part of InaiMathi font, used to type Devnagari language, now comes bundled with Lion. Locate the symbol by scrolling in the ‘Font Variation’ box located at the bottom-right part of the dialog box and double-click to insert it in your text editor. Adding the symbol to ‘Favorites’ hastens the process next time you want to insert it somewhere.

Four new Indian Regional Languages

Next up is addition of support for four new Indian regional languages. These include Bangla, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. Support for Devnagari, Gujarati, Gurmukhi and Tamil already existed in Snow Leopard. Seven out of these total eight languages come with QWERTY support. This essentially means that you can use your English keyboard to type in these languages and it works surprisingly well. To enable one of the regional languages, hop to ‘Languages & Text’ in the System Preferences app. Select the ‘Input Sources’ tab and tick the checkbox for the language you wish to use. Checking the ‘Show Input menu in menu bar’ box lists them in a dropdown from the menu bar, allowing you to select among the enabled languages. Alternatively, you can switch between different input sources with the help of customizable keyboard shortcuts.

Listen to your Text in Indian Voices

The best addition among them all is inclusion of two Indian voices in the Text to Speech engine. ‘Sangeeta’ is an Indian-English voice and ‘Lekha’ is a Hindi voice. Having an Indian-English voice is a refreshing change from the age-old voice of Alex that we have become acclimatized to over the years. It’s rather interesting to note that ‘Sangeeta’ is part of Nuance RealSpeak Solo Voices, which fuels the rumors about an impending Apple-Nuance deal. Introduction of Hindi in Text to Speech opens a whole new world of opportunity for educational institutions. It’s amazing to witness the clarity and accuracy of Lekha in pronouncing even the most difficult of Hindi words. Apple has done a fantastic job with both these voices. These voices however do not come bundled with the OS and need to be downloaded sperately. Head over to ‘Speech’ in System Preferences app and by using the customize option in the System Voice doprdown you can select either or both of ‘Sangeeta’ and ‘Lekha’ voices. Software Update will pop open asking if you want to download and install these voices that weigh around 300MB each. Once installed, you can listen to a piece of text in their voice by selecting the ‘Start Speaking’ option from the contextual menu.

It’s nice to see more regional languages getting supported which highlights the efforts that Apple has made to attract users from these communities. Hat tip to Preshit for discovering the Indian voices during one of his own mini-adventure trips. I would like to believe that Hindi is just the beginning and voice support for more regional languages is planned for the future. That sums up the new features introduced in Lion that Indian users would definitely welcome.

[Header Image by Jan Hecking on Flickr]

Prepare yourself to hear the Lion roar

Prepare yourself to hear the Lion roar

If you haven’t already heard, Apple just announced on their Q3 2011 Earnings call that Mac OS X Lion will definitely be landing tomorrow. Upgrading to a shiny new OS is exciting as you get to play with new stuff, everything feels snappier and all the eye candy makes you drool. But the upgrade story doesn’t always have a happy ending. Sometimes, there are hiccups in the process and your computer might become slow after the upgrade or your favorite apps might not work. It’s like going on an adventure trip only to come back bruised screaming in pain. Alright, that was a bit exaggerated but here is a quick checklist of stuff to do before switching to Lion so that your Lion upgrade goes as smoothly as possible.

Cleanup

AppZapper

I am pretty sure everyone’s Applications folder is filled up with hundreds of apps that have been downloaded over the years. Some of the apps you like and start using while others just lie there occupying valuable disk space. This is where AppZapper comes in handy. Manually dragging an app to Trash deletes the app, but the support files still remain on the system. AppZapper takes care of that.  It sucks the life out of useless apps, leaving no trace of it on your system. Another feature of AppZapper called Hit List lets you organize apps by size and how frequently you have used them, so use AppZapper to delete the apps you really don’t need, hence freeing up your hard disk.

DaisyDisk

DaisyDisk is one of my favorite Mac apps. It looks beautiful and works really great. DaisyDisk will scan your hard disks and present the content as an interactive chart. DaisyDisk makes it extremely easy to find out where you have been wasting your disk space. DaisyDisk even includes hidden files in the scans, so you may come across those too and delete them if they are unnecessary. Also a quick look into your Downloads folder might help free up few gigabytes as lot of junk files accumulate there if you don’t make an effort to organize the files regularly.

Update

System Update

Check if all updates Apple has released have been installed before the OS upgrade. Some of the updates Apple releases are critical and may be necessary for Lion update, so it’s recommended that you follow these steps. For most basic users, here is how updating works. Click on the Apple icon in the left corner of the menu bar and then click on ‘Software Update’. The system will then check with Apple servers for the latest updates and download them. You will be asked to install updates and restart the computer if necessary once they are downloaded.

Application Update

You certainly don’t want to end up on Lion only to find out your favorite mail or calendar apps don’t work, leaving you in the lurch. With the introduction of Mac App Store, updating applications downloaded from the store has become a piece of cake. Fire up Mac App Store and hit the Updates tab and see to it all apps are up to date. Now, there will be apps that you’d gotten from individual developer sites and they require manual update. Open every such app and manually check for updates. This is a painful process but is extremely essential to make your upgrade trouble-free.

Backup

Time Machine

There is never a bad time to do a backup and there isn’t a better one just before an OS upgrade. There is a slim chance that something may go really wrong during your upgrade and you may have to go back to your old system, hence backing up your system is extremely necessary. Apple has made system backups extremely easy for users. Just plug in your external HDD and open the Time Machine app from your applications. Time Machine will automatically back up everything to your external hard disk. You can leave out non-essential folders if you are running low on external hard drive space. And just in case anything goes wrong, you can boot from your Time Machine backup by holding down the Option key during startup.

SuperDuper

For those who want to take extra precaution, we recommend that you use SuperDuper. SuperDuper will basically clone your hard disk as it is to an external hard disk. The SuperDuper backup is also fully bootable. While Time Machine is part of Snow Leopard, SuperDuper is a third-party app that costs money but is totally worth it, if something goes horribly wrong during the upgrade.

Compatibility

Developers work really hard to make sure that the apps you use on your current operating system will work flawlessly on the upgrade too, but sometimes there are problems, and the app might need some time to work peoperly on the new operating system. If you use an application that is extremely important to you or if it is part of your job , you should check the app’s compatibility with Lion before pressing the upgrade button. The guys over at RoaringApps have done an excellent job of compiling a list of all the apps and their status on Lion. Alternatively, you can visit developer websites or their twitter feeds to check the status of compatibility.

System

Sometimes there is a chance that apps might not work properly or your system may slow down if there are permission errors. Taking care of these errors before upgrading is always a good thing to do. You can repair disk permissions using Apple’s own Disk Utility application. The Disk Utility app is located in the Utilities folder inside Applications. Open the app and select your startup disk from the list on the left. Click on the first aid tab and then click Repair Disk Permissions.

The Lion upgrade is going to be delivered via Mac App Store, so there is no standing in line at the Apple Store this time. If you follow the above-mentioned advice, you’ll make sure Lion upgrade process is super smooth. If you still hit a snag or have any questions, just call us out @smokingapples and we’ll try our best to help you. And when the Lion update finally releases, connect your Mac to a stable internet connection, pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink, sit back and enjoy.

Manage Your Calendar the Fantastical Way

Manage Your Calendar the Fantastical Way

iCal is the the first app that gets fired from my dock everyday in the morning. It is my preferred event manager that helps me organize my work schedule, keep track of household chores and even set birthday reminders. It helps me get through the day with ease, making it indispensable and any app that improves upon the whole iCal experience is more than welcome. Enter Fantastical. The beautiful Fantastical app ships from the Flexibits factory. It does an amazing job at simplifying the whole iCal experience. Also not only does Fantastical work on iCal, it also supports Outlook and BusyCal.

iCal, Outlook or BusyCal are all complete applications in themselves and Fantastical does not add any new features to them. But before you give up on Fantastical, read on to find out how it changes the whole iCal experience. I’ll continue to use iCal throughout the review but remember, all the things apply to Outlook and BusyCal users as well.

Fantastical resides in the menu bar and a click on the icon reveals the shiny rectangular drop down interface that houses the calendar and allows to add and view events. When using the app for the first time, you’ll notice elements and animations that have been meticulously added by the developers at Flexibits. Be it the words flying out from the text box, pencil-made circles on the dates, brushed paint highlighting the event date or the calendar clinging to the two staple pins, each and every detail has been done brilliantly. The neat and compact interface lays the groundwork for an easy switch from iCal to Fantastical.

Fantastical picks up events already added to iCal and any new events created in Fantastical are added to iCal automatically. Adding new events is easy like a pie. Start typing in the text box to create an event or create one by double tapping a particular date. The app has plain English support, so I can type “Call Preshit tomorrow at noon” and a new event gets created with the specified date and time. Dates are also recognized in plain english, paving the way for super fast event creation. When you begin to type, the calendar slides down, revealing options to add event location, duration, select a calendar or even add invitees to the event. Simply put, the app looks great and works great but the inability to edit/delete an event or create a To-Do is sorely missed in the app.


Fantastical comes with quite a few preferences to tweak around. Apart from the menu, the app can be accessed by a custom keyboard shortcut. The menu bar icon can be customized to show only the date or date along with weekday or month. Default calendar and alarm settings for timed events and all-day events can be set within the preferences. So if you usually like to be alerted, say, 15 minutes before an event, let Fantastical in on this fact and it will appear as your default alarm setting for new events. I like the option to manually set the number of days to view the event list for. This means you can have Fantastical show the events just for today or for the next 31 days. Events from your super secret individual calendars can be hidden in the preferences too.

If you’ve reached this far reading the review, pull out your credit card because I’m sure you’ll wanna buy Fantastical. By concocting just the right ingredients, Flexibits developers have come up with the perfect recipe to manage your calendar. The ubiquitous nature of the app coupled with beautiful and super easy to use interface, makes it worth the $19.99 it retails for on the Mac App Store. There is also a 15-day trial version available if you still can’t make up your mind. iCal power user like me would surely want to splurge on this handy little app that makes your life just a little bit easier to manage.

Sparrow, the Ideal Mail Client for Mac

Sometimes, trying out beta version of an app can lead to a sore experience that ultimately changes your perception of the app even before developers roll out the final build for public consumption. Something similar happened to me when I installed the first beta of Sparrow Mail around nine months ago. Sparrow, back then, was […]

Stratus Delivers the Perfect CloudApp Experience on iOS

CloudApp is my favorite service for sharing links, screenshots, text files and other stuff on the web. It has been more than a year since CloudApp went public but the iOS platform has received no love from the developers. The CloudApp API hasn’t seen mass adoption that one would have hoped for when the service launched […]

Get Phocus-sed.

Phocus

It’s said that the best posture is the one that’s constantly changing. I know I’ve developed a bad posture out of constant computer usage. You see, I rest my elbow on one side of the chair, while using the mouse with the other. What I didn’t realise, was that I developed a tilt to one side, as the gap between my left shoulder and ear is now shorter than from my right shoulder to ear. The physio identified this in an instant and has associated it with a lot of my other problems. Anyway, part of the solution to this was some stretching exercises are done at regular intervals, or at least get up and move about.

And this is applicable to everyone; sitting at a desk for hours on end — no matter how well designed the chair might be — is bound to lead to imbalances, spinal problems, and worst of all, pulmonary embolisms. Problem is, it’s hard to remember, especially when you’re concentrating hard on the job at hand. I’ve tried recurring alarms in the past, or setting quick reminders in Due app, but it’s hard to remember to turn those things on. And then I got to use Phocus.

Phocus lets you work in units of “work time”, each unit followed by a unit of “break time”, with a large “reward time” at the end. The defaults are 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break, and a 15 minute reward at the end, but you can change those to suit yourself. You do all of this in the hot user interface that Phocus comes with. Marshall Bock, its designer and developer, has sort of taken the tapbottish aesthetic, though much less mechanical than a ‘bot’ app.


But this is not about the pixels that make up its user interface. It’s about how Phocus keeps you informed of how long you’ve been working, and reminds you to take a break when your time’s up (in-app or via a local notification).

The physiological aspects were just my spin on it. The workflow is actually meant to help you concentrate better on your work, allowing you five minutes at a time to look at twitter, email, reddit, and then get back to work. That way you’re not constantly thinking about checking those networks for activity, nor does it shut you out completely.

If you think you weren’t working when you should have been, you can restart that phase. You can also skip break times though don’t make it a habit. iOS’s lack of proper background operations means you have to open the app every time there’s a switch between work or break time (it doesn’t robotically run through the whole sequence). It’s something I can’t blame the developer for, so I’m just laying it out. The only solution to this would be a menubar app for the Mac. At first I thought my major complaint was going to be the lack of separate time profiles, but 25/5 is such a great combination, combined with the ease of which you can change those, it would have only served more clutter.

How has it worked so far? Really well. Been using it for the past two months or so. I don’t bother about running through an entire session, just making sure I walk around and stretch after every 25 minutes. I tried using while watching movies, but my fidgety nature meant I got up on my own every so often.

At $2 on the App Store, it’s a steal for the utility it offers. Think about it, and if you find yourself working long stretches at a time, I’d highly recommend Phocus.

Chirpy 2.0 brings unified Twitter Direct Messages to iPhone

Post image for Chirpy 2.0 brings unified Twitter Direct Messages to iPhone

Twitter Direct Messages have become the preferred mode of communication among startup/small organization employees and also among twitter folks in general as they are non-intrusive and convenient mode of conversation. Thus having a twitter client that exclusively handles Direct Messages has become more of a necessity than a luxury. If you are a twitter DM freak, Chirpy 2.0 is for you. High Order Bit developers have given Chirpy a full redesign over its predecessor and it now comes with an all new feature set.

Complete with retina graphics and Dropbox integration, Chirpy offers a lot of advantages over full-blown twitter clients. Dropbox functionality for one, is a big bonus that lets you you share images in a jiffy, while still keeping them private; unlike when using photo-sharing services like Twitpic or Lockerz. Chirpy creates a new folder in your Dropbox account without cluttering your public folder. The app also offers inline viewing of the images shared via Dropbox. Push notifications is the preferred way to get notified of incoming DMs. It now comes with a search feature that comes in real handy when you have umpteen number of conversations loaded up in your inbox and need to find a specific message you vaguely remember about. Ability to email conversations, copy-paste messages, mark all messages read are some of the other features Chirpy 2.0 comes bundled with. A neat and clean interface with customizable chat bubble colors makes for a pleasant reading experience. Fewer taps to access DMs from multiple accounts is essentially the USP of the app.

Chirpy lacks the ability to swipe to delete a conversation. It can only delete messages one at a time which is utterly painful if you want to get rid of a long conversation. I would’ve loved to see video sharing via Dropbox integrated within the app. The app isn’t universal and is restricted to the iPhone for now. Overall Chirpy is a perfect app for folks who rely heavily on twitter DMs and it works just as advertised. Its price recently dropped from $1.99 to $0.99, so now would be a perfect time to grab it from the App Store.

My thoughts on the whole iOS 5 copying Android situation

iOS 5 Notifications

Normally, Apple keynotes bring joy and happiness only to Apple fans around the world. But the last keynote had something for everyone. Fans of other operating systems, usually otherwise known as Apple haters, are generally foaming at the mouth after an Apple keynote, struggling to find negative things to say other than something along the lines of “Apple suxx” in the comments section of technology sites for the next few weeks. But this keynote probably made them feel like Christmas came earlier and Santa Clause was actually a nude Playboy model. Because for the first time, Apple had taken design ideas from its competitors instead of the other way around, which is how it usually has been over the last few years. The tables, it seems, have turned.

But did Apple really just blatantly copy others? Did they just sit around for several months doing nothing and then at the last moment said, “Screw this. Let’s just copy Android.”? I don’t think so.

Let’s take a moment to look at the MacBook Pro design. Whichever way you look at it, it’s an absolute masterpiece and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better designed notebook in the market today. Same goes for the iMac. These designs are in fact so good that Apple hasn’t even bothered to change them in the last few years.

In case you are wondering why I drifted off to the Macs, allow me to explain. The thing about designs, I believe, is that there is just one right way to do it,  with limitations imposed by the technology available at that time. What I mean is that there cannot possibly be a better designed laptop today than the MacBook Pro and Apple knows that, which is why they haven’t bothered changing it. They have reached that level of perfection that cannot be exceeded without significant technological advancements.


But like I said, there can be only one right way to do it and more often than not, Apple is the one to get there first. They did it with the MacBook Pro, the iMac and even the iPhone. The iPhone 4 is perhaps the best looking phone ever manufactured. It’s not quite perfect, but there’s nothing better out there right now.

Now we often see other manufacturers trying to copy Apple’s designs, sometimes even blatantly. But what I feel is that they are not trying to copy Apple. They are instead trying to come up with that perfect design, and the closer they get to achieving that, the more their product starts to resemble Apple’s.

Think about it — can you think of a better design for a spoon? Will you be able to design one that has the same functionality but doesn’t look anything like the standard spoon? I don’t think so. That’s because the spoon’s design has reached that level where it cannot be improved any further (functionally and not just aesthetically) with current technology.

In the case of notifications in iOS 5, the reverse happened. Android had pretty much perfected the notification system. So if Apple had to create a perfect notifications system it was going to be difficult for them to not make it look like the one on Android. For their part, they actually went a step ahead and improved upon what was already an excellent notification system on Android. It’s not quite perfect yet, but if anyone does manage to do that, I believe it won’t look far too different from what Apple has done here.

However, this logic does not always apply. In some cases I’m pretty sure Apple simply “borrowed” the features instead of spending any amount of time developing them on their own, such as the auto-focus and exposure lock feature in the new Camera app. The credit there goes to developers of awesome apps such as Camera+ and also goes to show how fantastic their product is, if a company like Apple has to turn to them for inspiration.

Of course, I have no proof to back up my thoughts here. They are just that, thoughts. Thoughts that occurred to me one fine day. I believe Apple independently came up with the idea of the notification system just the way I believe they did not come up with some of the features in the camera app. Some might think of me as an Apple apologetic, I think of it as looking at both sides of the coin.

I don’t think any iOS user out there is complaining about the new changes in iOS 5. But I’m sure knowing the fact that some of the new features have been taken over from other operating systems would not have been a very pleasant sensation. They are not used to this. But I hope this little explanation helps in easing some of it. It did for me.

[This is a guest post by Prasad Naik, a technology reviewer who currently writes for GSMArena. You can respond to his thoughts on Twitter, he’s @krazyfrog.]

Apple India lands in a ridiculous legal soup

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Every once in a while there is news that cracks you up. The latest addition to that category is a complaint filed to Competition Commission of India(CCI) against Apple India for allegedly limiting the availability of its products to a handful of service providers using its dominant market position. It is quite surprising to see the word dominant used in the complaint as Apple by no means is a dominant player in the Indian market. Macs and iPhones comprise of only a small percentage of the computers and phones sold in the Indian market. I have closely followed Apple operations in India over the last few years and there has been a steep rise in the number of retailers that offer Apple products. Though Apple is yet to start its flagship Apple Stores in India, leading outlets such as Reliance iStore, Croma and Vijay Sales have embraced Apple products and made sure they are available to a large percentage of Indian customers. These outlets are in addition to the signature stores that exclusively stock Apple products and are spread across major cities in India.

Another allegation made by the complainant is that Apple phones can only be serviced in Apple centers, which charge high rates for servicing the phone. iPhones all over the world are serviced by Apple centers as they have the technical expertise and are properly equipped to do the same. As far as out-of-warranty service charges are concerned, the rates in India are at par with what Apple charges in other countries. These rates maybe on the higher side but it makes little sense to crib over something that is a standard practice by the company across the globe.

I still can’t stop laughing over the accusation that the plaintiff has levied towards Apple for restricting third-party software access on its iOS devices to App Store only. Ever since Apple launched the App Store back in 2008, it has grown at a mind-boggling pace and now houses over 400,000 apps. The popular phrase “There’s an app for that” outlines the success App Store is today. It has totally changed the game with competitors rushing to launch their own versions of the App Store. It comes as a huge shock that someone believes there are better apps on offer at some of the other stores.

“At present, iPhone’s latest version is available in India through Aircel and Bharti Airtel, while the iPads are sold through Apple store only.”, alleges the complainant. I read that statement umpteen number of times to make some sense out of it, but failed. Both the iPhone and iPad in India are sold unlocked in India and hence purchase made from a retailer entitles you to use the device with any provider across the country. In fact, with the latest offerings of iPhone 4 in India, Bharti Airtel and Aircel have come up with attractive plans that reimburse some of the cost associated with the initial purchase. It’s funny how Apple decides to sell its latest offerings in India at competitive prices but still lands itself in legal soup to be investigated by Competition Commission of India.

Overall, the allegations that have been made against Apple India are absolutely ridiculous and it would be interesting to see how CCI approaches the matter when it takes it up for consideration by the end of this week. We at Smoking Apples will keep you abreast with any significant developments in the case.

[Header Image by Dennis Yang on Flickr]