Saturday, June 30, 2012

My favorite iPad text editor: PlainText

One app I've been using a lot lately is PlainText, a simple text editor that syncs seamlessly with Dropbox and saves as actual .txt files. (Free with ads, lose the ads for $2.)

I use TextEdit a lot on my Macs, doing almost everything I can in plain text or .rtf documents. I only use Word when I actually need the features. But it was surprisingly hard to find an editor on the iPad that could open and save to a simple .txt. I tried Evernote, but it saves you work as some internal file type that can't really be accessed outside of Evernote itself. Same for my extensive collection of notetaking apps that allow both typing and handwriting.

I wanted an app to work on simple lists, blog posts, and other writing projects in, so that I could also open them in TextEdit or other programs on any computer. Enter PlainText.

It's simple and does its job beautifully. It creates a folder in DropBox, and you can either set it to sync continually or only when you tell it to. (I had it set to sync continually, til my husband was using the computer and got annoyed when it kept telling him that Note.txt had been updated - now I sync manually.) You can create subfolders within the app. The text editor itself is simple, no frills. The document list is in a column on the left (it doesn't autohide in portrait, by the way), or you can go into focus mode and see only the text you're working on.

It's certainly nothing fancy. But it is precisely what I'd been looking for. If I could wish for one upgrade, I would want it to also do simple .rtf files, possibly via MarkDown. I've had a hell of a time finding anything on iOS that does .rtf. But for now, it's serving its purpose very well.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A few favorite photo apps

Sorry I've been gone for a bit, but hopefully I'll be updating regularly again now!

I do a lot of photo editing on my iPad. A LOT. My camera has an Eye-Fi card in it that auto-uploads every picture I snap to Photobucket. I use the Photobucket app to sort through those, put them in albums, etc. Then I download the ones that need fixing up and do that on the iPad and reupload them with the app.

I have literally a couple dozen photo editing apps on my iPad, but over time I've found that there are just a few that I keep going back to, the workhorses that are good for more than just a few gimmicks.

Snapseed - There's a reason this app won app of the year last year. We went to Hawaii this year, and the photo problem was that there was tons of nice scenery, but it was overcast and rainy almost the whole time so it was hard to get a nice shot of it. Enter Snapseed, with their Drama filters and excellent tuning tools. Over and over again, I put in a photo that was too dark, too underexposed, and it found whatever information was hiding in there and brought it out to great effect.

Photo as originally taken:

After running it through Snapseed:

Snapseed brought out details of the island that I thought had been lost, and made the water look more like it had before the clouds rolled in and dulled its surface. And it took just a couple of minutes!

PhotoGene - This is actually a recent purchase, but I'm already using it constantly. I bought it for its redeye correction - the Photos app can catch some red eyes, but sometimes it overdoes it and you wind up with eyes that look like they came out of a horror movie. Rather than simply putting black blobs over the red, PhotoGene adjusts the color to a yellower hue and darkens it. And if that doesn't work, it has a dodge mask feature that lets you darken just the bit you want, to get rid of remaining pupil glare. And if that doesn't work, it has a cloning heal tool, and I will freely admit that I just printed out a couple pictures that had one iris cloned over to the other side to cover up an irretrievably red eye. You have to be careful with that, of course, or you'll wind up with some very creepy results, but if you're careful you can't tell, especially at 4x6 size. The masking tools are useful for a variety of other applications as well, and I have barely begun to explore this app's other features.

Here is an example of my dog Fred before:

And after redeye correction and a burn mask in PhotoGene:

As you can see, the Photo app correction is a little too harsh in this picture; I find it works best when the pupil is well-defined and is the only thing that's red:

PicStitch - I assumed that a collage-making app would be a gimmick I'd use once or twice and forget about, but this turns out to be a very useful tool. When I have a variety of similar shots that I want to share online (say, of my baby trying different foods and making a mess out of all of them) I don't have to make my FaceBook friends flip through a whole album. I even print them out sometimes - I wanted to capture the interesting local options on the Waikiki McDonald's menu, but didn't really want to print out four photos of a McDonald's, so instead I printed this one picture:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Road to the App Store

I'm doing a 101 in 1001 project - that is, I set 101 goals for myself and have 1001 days (about 2 years, 9 months) to achieve them. One of those goals is to write my own iPad app! I have a few app ideas, but the simplest one (a good place to start) will actually be the app I wish I had when making this list of goals. Right now I'm using Task PRO to keep track of them, and it's a great app that I like a lot but there are a few features I'd like to have specifically for this kind of goal list.

Now, I haven't really programmed much since I took 6.001 (Structure & Interpretation of Computer Programs) my freshman year at MIT - and that was well over a decade ago! And it was taught in Scheme, an obscure variant of Lisp (already an obscure programming language) that is pretty much only used in 6.001 and classes around the country based on it. I programmed a little in plain C in high school, but I've never really used an object-oriented language... Unless you count NetLogo. Yes, that's a descendant of the Logo that had you telling a turtle to turn right 90 degrees in elementary school. Unlike original flavor, NetLogo isn't the worst intro to OOP you could hope for, so there's that.

What I'm trying to say is, I understand the theory but I don't know any useful programming languages.

So this is going to be a fairly big project.

I'm getting started by taking the Stanford iOS development class from iTunes U. Even that is proving to be tricky, though, since I run OSX 10.6 on my desktop. Why does that matter? Well, the most up to date version of the class, which covers iOS 5, requires Xcode 4 for the assignments - and to get Xcode 4 my options seem to be upgrading to 10.7 (which I'm hesitant to do for various reasons that I won't go into here because this is an iPad blog, not a Mac blog) or paying the $100 developer fee now. I'll have to pay it eventually anyhow, I was just hoping to put it off since it's an annual fee.

So I'm watching the lectures now and mulling what to do about the assignments. I'll keep you updated as I progress, for anyone interested in seeing the app development process from total noob to App Store.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

iKeyWi HD - The tweak I've been waiting for!

For the longest time, one of the main jailbreak tweaks I have really, really wanted is a keyboard with arrow keys. Sometimes, especially when you're moving (or have a baby bumping the iPad), it's really hard to get the cursor exactly where you want it. It's easy to get it within a couple characters, but that doesn't cut it if you've placed it before the stuff you want to delete.

Thanks to iPad Help, I discovered that such a thing finally exists! iKeywi HD (link will take you to Cydia) adds a fifth row to the keyboard as well as arrow keys in the lower right corner, and makes all non-alphabet keys completely customizable. The tweak costs $3.

This is exactly what I've been hoping for! Not only arrow keys, but numbers on the main keyboard as well as the ability to make all kinds of symbols easier to get to. The keys are smaller because you're fitting more into the same space; for some people with big fingers this might be a downside, but for me it just makes it easier for me to type one-handed in landscape!

Now, I was all set to tell you that, unfortunately, the tweak is buggy to the point of being unusable. BUT - I went back to Cydia to check for an update, and sure enough, the worst of the bugs have been fixed! Yay for developers who are on the ball! There are still a few problems to watch out for, though:

- At first, it had problems capitalizing words at the start of lines or sentences. Now the only issue is if the word needs to be autocorrected, it gets corrected to lowercase.

- The arrows weren't working for me in many apps - now they work almost everywhere. They still aren't working for me in Mail, or on some website text boxes in Atomic.

It's also a bit sad to lose the ability to swipe up from the . and , keys to get to ' and ", but since everything is customizable I can still get to those with the shift. The other feature I'd like is being able to actually turn the keyboard on and off in Settings - right now the only way to revert to the standard keyboard is by deleting iKeyWi entirely.

Now that the worst of the bugs have been fixed, I think this tweak is definitely worth the $3 if you've been wanting a better keyboard. I came for the arrows, but I'm staying for the ability to assign entire HTML tags to a single key.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Really, ESPN?

I present to you ESPN's "tablet" site:

In the immortal words of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers - really?? ESPN, did you design this in 1996 in the hopes that tablets would one day be invented? Or maybe it was made for a prototype web browser on the Newton. Either way, ESPN, do you really think that a modern machine like the iPad, or even various Android tablets, is capable of loading nothing more complicated than a list of text links? Really?

Now, to be fair, a more normal-looking tablet site loads in Safari (the above is in Atomic). But Atomic loads the full desktop site no problem, so I have no idea what ESPN is doing here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What a temptation!

I wasn't going to get an iPad 3, really I wasn't. I'm just not an upgrade-every-generation kind of girl. I still use a PowerBook G4 for work, and my desktop was a CRT eMac until 2010! At most, I was considering trading in my wifi model for an identical 3G - used, even. The retina display is cool and all, but I can wait another year for it. Maybe even two.

But Apple had to go and throw in the one thing I really wish I had. They went and upgraded the rear camera! Nooooooo!

I've seen people make fun of this upgrade, I've seen people question the existence of the rear camera at all. I agree that the iPad is a bit awkward to take photos with. But here's what it comes down to for me: I have my iPad on me almost all the time at home. I do not have my camera (or even my phone, which takes slightly better pics than the iPad) on me all the time. When my baby does something cute, I can either run and find the camera, wait for it to power up, and possibly miss the cute, or I can switch to the camera app and capture the cute now, but at low quality. I do a little of each - but with a decent rear camera, I'd never have to choose again.

But is that convenience worth $330 (assuming I could get $300 for my current iPad)? I'm still not sure. Luckily, I wouldn't buy one til it's jailbroken anyhow, so I've got some time to think...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

iPad 3: Tactile display? Nah, couldn't be.... Could it?

I would just like to call your attention to this thread over at the MacRumors iPad forum.

The OP gives fairly compelling evidence that a tactile display is not outside the realm of possibility for next week's iPad 3 intro. Apple even may have obliquely referenced it in their event promo tagline: "We have something you've really got to see... And touch." The tag line for the iPhone 4S/Siri announcement was "Let's talk iPhones." It was innocuous enough on the surface, and only after the fact was it clear that it was foreshadowing Siri. "Something you've really got to see" is likely the much-anticipated retina display, but why the "and touch?" iOS's touch interface hasn't been something worth noting in years. Could it be a tactile display?

Eh, probably not. It seems like a very cool technology that will make it to the iPad in another year or two, but I'm not convinced that it's ready for prime time just yet. But I wanted to post this so that it goes on record that, if Apple pulls this particular rabbit out of its hat, Zweimeter totally called it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Thank you, iFile!

I write and post most of my posts using the BlogPress app, and it has served me well.

But today it didn't. When I tried to post my last entry, it hung. It eventually claimed to have posted it, but the entry didn't appear on the blog. I tried again, and the same thing happened. Then BlogPress crashed. When I restarted it, my entry was gone! Because BlogPress thought it had been posted, it was deleted from the list of drafts. But since it hadn't actually made it, it wasn't in the list of current posts either!

Enter iFile, a Cydia app available to jailbreakers that gives you actual access to your iPad's filesystem. I managed to find, in BlogPress's documents folder, all the drafts I'd saved today as text files and copy the text out to PlainText for safekeeping until I had time to try and repost. Success! A half hour's worth of typing saved!

For those naysayers who claim that the only reason to jailbreak is for silly cosmetic improvements - this is why I jailbreak!

My new addiction: Fairway Solitaire HD

Back in college, at one point everyone on my dorm hall was addicted to a solitaire game called Tri-Peaks. The cards are laid out to form three pyramids with only the bottom row face up. You turn over a card from the draw pile and can play the card above or below it from the board, earning more points for longer runs. Like most solitaire games, it's the perfect balance of mindless clicking with just a hint of strategy to keep you paying attention.

I have a Tri-Peaks app on my iPad, and it's fine (and free). But just the other day I ran across a game that takes the Tri-Peaks concept to a whole new level: Fairway Solitaire by Big Fish Games. First off, almost every level uses a new and unique card layout, and some are much harder to clear than others. I found the level full of "52 Card Pickup" boards especially challenging:

Second, they add in a few trick cards to slow you down - in keeping with the golf theme, things like water hazards, sand traps, and roughs. This board has blue water hazard cards, all of which must be cleared to unlock the rest of the cards:

But to make up for these difficulties, you get those clubs down in the bottom right corner - playing a 4-iron puts a 4 down for you to play on, etc. You find these randomly, or can buy them (and other helpful add-ons) with golf bucks.

Which brings me to something I really appreciate about this game. There is an excellent balance between the rate at which you earn golf bucks and how badly you need the helping items you can buy. Unlike many "freemium" games, it's never impossible to play without buying more golf bucks with real cash (although, of course, that is an option). If you want to use clubs constantly you'll need to, but if you're playing smart and using your clubs judiciously you'll find that you can usually afford them when you really need one.

The free version of the game comes with eight full courses of 3-9 boards each, and due to the inherent nature of solitaire games the replayability is very high. But this game was so addicting, not to mention well-designed, that I had no problem paying the $3 to access all 50+ courses (plus extras). And I rarely pay for games!

The one complaint I have is the low value of long runs. Runs of 5 or fewer cards have no value aside from the cards they clear, and runs of 6 or more are worth only a paltry number of golf bucks. You only get a major reward - 1000 gb - if your runs (only those of 6 or more each) add up to at least 20 on one board. In traditional Tri-peaks, even runs of 3 or 4 can be worth significantly more points than individual cards cleared, and a long run of, say, 15 is worth quite a lot. I'd like to at least see runs of 10-20 cards rewarded more heavily here.

Overall, though - well done, Big Fish!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Yes, Virginia, there is Flash on the iPad.

It's possibly the most persistent myth about the iPad: No Flash support.

Competitors like to trumpet it to let you know that they give you a "fuller web experience." iPad newbies express concern that their new device will be horribly hobbled. People come to jailbreaking forums asking if there's any way to get Flash by jailbreaking.

Let's ignore the fact that Adobe themselves have declared mobile Flash dead and that the majority of the web has already moved on to HTML 5. The fact remains that there are some sites that still use Flash heavily - Facebook games, photo editors, local restaurants that haven't touched their site since it was built in 2004. Are iPad owners really sacrificing this chunk of the web?

It is true that Safari, the built-in web browser, doesn't support Flash. And it was true that when the iPad was introduced, there was no way to get Flash. But the iPad is nearing two years old, and has hundreds of thousands of apps built for it - do you really think nobody thought there was money to be made in a Flash-supporting app? Of course they did, and of course they found a work-around - by running the Flash through their own servers on its way to you.

In truth, iPad owners have several options for Flash browsers (no Jb required):

Puffin - This is the Flash browser that I personally use. To be honest, 90% of the time if I come across a site using Flash I just leave the site and find somewhere else to do my business. But I wanted to give Flash on the iPad a try. Puffin works great for video, and slow but acceptable for editing photos and photo books on sites like snapfish. It seems to have some trouble with Zynga games on Facebook, though, randomly reloading at inopportune times. At 99c, though, it's a cheap way to check out the occasional Flash site on your iPad.

Photon - I haven't tried it myself, but Photon gets very good reviews for speed and handling of a variety of Flash sites, and seems to be extremely popular. Popular enough that according to AppShopper it hasn't once gone on sale since raising its price to $4.99 in August, but if you need regular and reliable Flash it may be a good investment.

iSwifter - Don't let the Free tag fool you - iSwifter only gives you ten minutes of free browsing at a time to check it out, after which you'll need to pay $4.99 in-app for the full browser. I took the free sample for a short spin. iSwifter is designed with Flash games in mind specifically - it definitely handles Zynga better than Puffin. But if you're looking for more general Flash support, it comes up short on websites it hasn't been specifically optimized for.

SkyFire - SkyFire was the first browser to bring Flash to the iPad, and is still popular. However, its capabilities are limited to Flash video, not interactive content. If that's what you need, it's what SkyFire was built to do and according to reviews it does it well. But if you might want to use some interactive Flash content as well sometimes, $4.99 seems like a steep price for a fraction of the functionality of Photon.

Friday, January 27, 2012

What IS jailbreaking?

Over on the MacRumors iPad forum, someone asked why the authors of jailbreak tweaks don't release their apps to the general unjailbroken public. This question indicates a fundamental misunderstanding about what jailbreaking actually means, one that I think is quite common.

So what does it actually mean to jailbreak your iPad?

When your iPad arrives brand-new from the store, there is only one way to get apps onto it: Apple's App Store. Whether directly onto the iPad or via iTunes, the App Store is the one and only place where you can download apps and install them onto the iPad.

Apple has 100% control over what appears in the App Store. There are good reasons for this - for example, because Apple tests every app before approving it, malware doesn't make it into the App Store Andy thus has no way to make it onto your iPad. But there are certain types of apps that Apple simply doesn't allow, such as those that make system-wide changes or affect iOS itself. And there are other apps that can't be approved for other reasons - for example, VLC is a popular media player on desktop computers. But VLC, and thus the VLC app, is written using code that is covered by the GPL (Gnu Public License), and some of the App Store's terms conflict with the GPL. Thus, distributing the app in the App Store would violate the license its code was written under.

So where does jailbreaking come into this? Well, jailbreaking your iPad does exactly one thing: When you jailbreak your iPad, it adjusts the code so that it is possible to install apps from a source other than Apple's App Store. That's all. Well, and it installs Cydia, which is just an alternate app store. So once you've jailbroken, you can download apps from Cydia that Apple would never approve, like ones to change the appearance of your icons or reassign what happens when you click the home button.

Of course, the downside is that since Cydia doesn't have the lengthy approval process of the App Store, there is the possibility of malware or just bugs in tweaks that are system-wide. But it's not too hard to Google a package before you download it to make sure it's legit - and the one time I had one that messed things up a bit, it all went back to normal once I deleted it.

I think that a lot of people hear the "break" part of jailbreak and think that it somehow involves breaking the iPad or iOS itself - it doesn't. The one and only thing that changes when you jailbreak is where you can download apps from - until, of course, you start downloading them and tweaking the things you want to tweak.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

iOS 5 and lovin' it!

With the release of the Absinthe jailbreak, I have finally upgraded to iOS 5.0.1!

I am super-impressed with the new photo album features. I've mentioned before that I do a lot of photo management and editing on my iPad, and now it's going to be twice as easy! I'd been searching for a good red-eye eliminator, and now it's built right in, along with rotating and cropping - all without the annoyance of a second copy of the photo. It's about time! Also long overdue is the ability to create multiple albums, though I'd gotten around that with the Cydia tweak PhotoAlbums+.

Less-intrusive notifications are also nice, but the multitouch stuff I've mostly disabled. With an infant often banging on the iPad, I prefer the gestures provided by Activator - though now I do wish Activator provided a way to switch directly between apps like the built-in multitouch.

Honestly, there's not much else that I find that exciting in iOS 5 - but the photo improvements are enough to make me very happy!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Decisions, decisions

For those of us with jailbroken iPad 2s running iOS 4.3.3, things are a bit precarious right now.

See, a jailbreak of iOS 5.0.1 was released for devices with A4 chips (iPad 1, iPhone 4, etc) last week. But it doesn't work for our A5 devices yet. We don't know exactly when the A5 jailbreak will be out. Why is this a problem?

Well, when it does come the jailbreak will almost certainly also be for 5.0.1. But now that this version has had one JB, Apple will be rushing to update to 5.0.2 (or possibly 5.1?) as soon as they can close whatever hole the JB uses. Once Apple moves on to the next version, 5.0.1 won't be available, so anyone still on 4.3.3 will have to either stay there and continue missing out on iOS 5 features or upgrade to a version that won't be jailbroken for quite a while, if ever. But upgrading to 5.0.1 before it's jailbroken means losing your current jailbreak, with no actual guarantee that anyone will definitely find one for A5 devices on iOS 5.

Just the other day, jailbreaker p0sixninja tweeted a somewhat cryptic warning - he says that everyone, including A5 users, should upgrade to 5.0.1 now. But he hasn't elaborated - does he know that a jailbreak is imminent? Or that 5.0.2 is imminent? Or is he simply guessing that 5.0.2 will be coming soon due to the A4 jailbreak, and that 5.0.1 will be jailbroken fairly soon (or at least before 5.0.2 is)?

For now, I have downloaded 5.0.1 but not installed it. I don't know exactly how these things work, but I've read that once Apple releases the next version, they'll keep signing the old version for a short time - maybe a day? not sure - so if you're quick you can still install it and back up your SHSH blobs with TinyUmbrella. So right now my plan is to install it as soon as either a JB or new version is announced - and I really, really hope this won't mean losing my current JB for more than a few days!

Update: The plot thickens

Now a second jailbreaker, pod2g, has taken to Twitter to announce that we could see a release within a week, and he, too, suggests upgrading to 5.0.1.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dear Wordpress

Dear Wordpress, I hate your "Tablet formatting" for your blogs. Why? Because I use my iPad in landscape mode 95% of the time, and your design is completely unusable in that orientation. You know, the orientation that most iPad stands hold the iPad in? Every time I click on a Wordpress blog, I have to turn my iPad to the side, scroll down, and click "View standard site" to read it. Or, more commonly, I just hit the back button because I don't feel like dealing with it. I'm sure your users would rather not lose potential readers because you don't understand how people actually use their iPads, so please make this landscape-compatible - or at least put the standard site link at the top so I can click through quickly and easily, without turning my iPad around. No love, Brandy