(You're reading all posts by Charlie Sorrel) Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie on Twitter at @mistercharlie.
About Charlie Sorrel
I recently watched The Lady try to convince a friend of ours to download WhatsApp. The friend is moving to the United Kingdom, and we want to stay in touch. Our friend tried to say that email would do the job, but we all know that will never work.
Our friend doesn’t want WhatsApp (maybe because it’s owned by Facebook), and she doesn’t own an iPhone, so iMessage is out. Thankfully, there are plenty of free and good alternatives. Some are more secure, some have more features, and none of them is owned by Facebook.
Let’s take a look at what’s available and how these very different messaging apps compare on a number of key features.
App Watch: Aug. 25, 2014
This week we get creative, making our own photo filters with Vibrance, writing stuff in the amazing Matcha text editor, and scheduling efficient days to fit it all in with Timeful. What are you waiting for? Check out the most interesting new iOS apps and updates in our weekly roundup.
Camu is a fantastic new camera app that combines all the essentials into one slick, superbly-designed and fun to use app. Plus, thanks to smart design and gestures, you can use it one handed. Swipe to change filters, swipe again to change their strength, tap to take split-screen (diptych) pictures, add captions and blur and share. A really nice photo app and – amazingly – it’s $Free
Matcha is so well designed you’ll want to write, just to use it. The text editor syncs with Dropbox and iCloud, and gives a great Markdown preview, but the point here is the details (and the beautiful, simple interface). You get full text search, right from a nav box at the top of the screen. And this means full – it digs into your entire Dropbox to search file names and paths, and inside local files’ contents. It has full (external) keyboard control, lots of (on-screen) keyboard tweaks, plus way more. It’s so well put together that it’s my new favorite text editor on iOS. $5
1Password iOS 8 Extension
You know how some smart apps have a little 1Password icon next to the login field, to quickly take you to the 1Password iOS app to grab your details? In iOS 8, that button could pop open a 1Password window right there in the app, allow you to auto-fill passwords and even payment fields without leaving the app. You know, like you can already do in OS X. Want to know how this awesome feature works? Read the AgileBits blog post.
Somewhat inexplicably there are almost no decent blogging apps on the Mac – you’re forced to contend with your blogging service’s lame web interface instead. Blogo brings together a text editor, an image editor, offline mode and Evernote sync. It also looks fantastic, which is a boon if your job is to stare at a text editor all day long. $15
Contexts offers four ways to switch windows on your Mac. Hover over its mini Dock-like switcher at the side of your screen and click, or hit ⌘-Tab and access the keyboard-triggered popover. This floating popover lets you keep tabbing between windows, or get direct access by tapping a number key, or by search to narrow down your windows by title or app. It’s dead simple, and it acts on individual windows in apps, not just the whole app itself. $9 with free trial
Vibrance lets you create your own photo filters on-the-fly. Take or load up a photo from your camera roll and either choose a built-in filter or make your own. A slider runs from dark to light, and you can tweak the color of any tone along that slider, giving, say, bluish shadows, yellow highlights and a little purplish kick in the dark mid-tones. It’s simple and powerful, but the interface is a little clunky. Free with IAP
Timeful combines your calendars and reminders, and then helps you with your scheduling. It will suggest times for new tasks and appointments, and even help to schedule routine tasks like exercise or shopping. It’s location -aware, it syncs with your existing calendars and it even makes adding a new event easy, letting you pick between reminders of calendar entries as you go. $Free
Lytro’s new app lets you view its light-field camera photos on your iOS device. The Lytro is that weird camera that lets you adjust the focus of you picture after you take the shot. Previously you needed a desktop computer with a desktop browser to display these interactive photos, but now you have this Universal app. It’s basic, just like the camera, but it’ll let you view your own publicly-shared Lytros, along with anyone else’s. $Free
500px for Lightroom
This plugin lets you upload your photos from Lightroom, straight to the “thinking person’s photo-sharing site,” 500px. Just drag the pictures you want to share to the new 500px publish service and they’ll be sent to your online portfolio. It can even read and write comments and lets you view your site stats from within Lightroom. $Free
Moshi’s Xync packs a Lightning-to-USB charging cable into a handy, dangly carabiner-clip package, and adds a secret compartment on the side. But is it better than just carrying a regular Lightning cable in your pocket/bag? The short answer? Hmm…
The long version? Read on.
These days you can easily share data and collaborate on almost anything, from Rdio playlists to photo streams. But when it comes to plain old written text, your options are terrible. You’re pretty much caught between working on a shared file in Google Docs or shuttling versions of your work back and forth via email. Add more than one collaborator and this becomes a total nightmare.
Thankfully, tools exist to smooth the process of collaborating on writing projects. I’m currently editing the second draft of a novella, and I’m looking for a way to work with “beta” readers. I’m testing several pieces of software, and so far one called Draft is in the lead. Not only does it let you share a document with other people, it lets the team comment on any part of the source document and also allows them to edit a copy. Then, when they submit their versions, you can preview any changes before accepting or rejecting them.
Better still, because Draft can sync with a document in Dropbox (as well as several other cloud services), you can sync the edits from your beta team with a local app, like Scrivener. Here’s what you need to make the collaborative magic happen.
Gadget Watch: Aug. 23, 2014
Bags, bags, bags. Literally – there are three hot bags in this week’s gadget roundup, and if you buy them all, you’ll be out by around a grand. Or you could buy the ultra-expensive Leica M-P, a new camera so minimal it doesn’t even have the trademark red dot on the front, yet still costs $8,000. Or you can go to the other end of the price range and pick up LensBaby’s new iPhone optic for just $70. And that’s just the beginning…
The Attaché leather bag
H.O.T. Those are the three letters that best describe Pad & Quill’s new Attaché bag, a beautiful leather satchel with unbreakable, high-copper-content hardware and parachute-grade stitching on the outside. Inside, you'll find padded MacBook and iPad pockets, plus orange suede pocket linings.
As a bonus, the marketing copy for the Attaché seems to have been written by Hannibal Lecter, containing this line: “Your taste buds and your liver deserve top shelf [and to be] savored in a glass.” (some words added for comedic effect). How much? $420
Dragon device holder
You can’t get much simpler than the Dragon device holder – it’s a pair of aluminum clips that snap onto the cylinder at the back of your Apple wireless keyboard and slide up and down, letting you space them to fit anything from an iPad to an iPod nano. The clips have a tail at the back to provide stability, and a little lip at the front to hook the bottom edge of your gadget. If you use a full-size keyboard with your iPad, this little gadget should be in your bag. $25
Brooks Hampstead holdall
This bag comes from Brooks, the English bike saddle maker. Weighing in at a hefty 1.6 kilos (well over 3 pounds), it has a roll-top enclosure and adjustable clips that can attach the bag to the rear rack of your bike. The body is “water resistant cotton” and the straps are leather. The price? Around $400.
KERO Power Annex
There’s little to say about KERO’s micro-suction portable battery other than, “What a frikkin’ great idea.” It’s a regular, modest-capacity backup battery (1800mAh, which will get your iPhone back to 75 percent) with a USB port and status-indicator LEDs, but on one side it has a micro-suction layer so you can stick it to the back of your iPhone, over and over. This is so much smarter than having to use a special case to clip the battery on, or just using a case with a built-in battery pack. Or you could do what I do, which is use a regular backup battery and a rubber band. $19
Pyle Smart Bicycling Computer (with Google Maps)
The Pyle PSBCG90 Smart Bicycling Computer tracks your rides with GPS and displays them on Google Maps back at your computer. You can also hook up any ANT+ accessories wirelessly (heart rate and cadence sensors, power meters and so on), and even challenge yourself, Mario Kart-style, using the ghost-route feature. It looks like a decent alternative to something like the Garmin EDGE 500, and it costs only $130.
Lensbaby for iPhone
Lensbaby now makes a sweet-spot lens for the iPhone. It sticks on with magnets (you need to stick the included ring over the iPhone’s lens) and blurs everything in your photos except a sharp sweet spot in the center. It's just like the regular Lensbabys, only less adjustable and made for the iPhone. There’s another neat feature – the front has a metal ring on it, too, so you can attach any other iPhone lenses you have onto the Lensbaby for some really freaky FX. $70
TenOne Magnus Air
The Magnus Air updates the minimalistical Magnus that originally shipped for the iPad 2, way back in the mists of 2012. Typical of TenOne’s design, it is so simple it almost doesn’t exist, sticking to the Air with magnets and adding an almost invisible stand that holds your iPad at 22 degrees from the vertical, and at 22 degrees from the horizontal if you lay it down to type. And that’s it – an aluminum bracket that looks kinda like a taco shell, for $40.
Fact: Cobra Brief is the name I gave to my favorite pair of underwear. And now, it is also the name of a “business laptop” bag from Booq. It has all the compartments and pockets you’d expect, with a space for almost literally everything, plus an outer quick-access pocket for your iPhone and iPad. You can even hook it onto the top of your carry-on trolley, allowing you to be one of those morons who sneaks too many bags into the plane and takes up all the overhead bin space. $295
Today I’m going to review a plastic bag. A new low, even for me? Maybe, but this is no ordinary plastic bag. It’s a bag that has beaten out pretty much every waterproof gadget case i’ve ever tested, because:
- It fits almost every gadget I have
- It weighs almost nothing. I can keep one in every bag I carry.
The bag is the LokSak, and it’s designed to keep your gadgets safe.
iOS 8 will bring Extensions to your iPhone and iPad. Extensions are essentially miniature versions of apps that can be run inside other apps. For instance, if you have Evernote installed on your iPhone, you could pop up the Evernote Extension when you’re running the Mail app, and save a snippet of that email to your Evernote account.
Clearly this is huge. It’s something that Android and Windows Phone users have enjoyed for a while, but Apple has – typically – taken its time to get it right. In fact, you have probably used Apple’s own “test” Extensions already: Whenever you see the Mail sheet roll down inside another app, or you access the built-in Twitter sharing box, you’re using an Extension.
But what kind of things can Extensions do for us? I’ve been thinking about that, and here’s a wish list of Extensions I’d love to see.
App Watch: Aug. 18, 2014
Movies, writing and photos. If you like any of these things, then you’re going to love this week’s App Watch. We have apps for slo-mo, retro, Drobo and to help you find that lost photo.
Slow Fast Slow
Studio Neat’s Slow Fast Slow is an iPhone video app that lets you shoot and edit short clips, then dicker with their speed. Record at up to 120 frames per second (when using an iPhone 5s) or 60 fps (everything else), then manipulate the playback speed by dragging the timeline (a literal line at the bottom of the screen) up and down, left and right. It also has pitch control (keeps the sound normal even as the picture changes) and can flip video and play it backward. As slick as you’d expect from Studio Neat, and just $2.
Prolost Bespoke Vintage Presets
Prolost will whip you up your own set of vintage, retro-style photo-editing presets for Lightroom. It’s kind of a better version of Prolost’s own Plastic Bullet iOS app, where you can just keep tapping a button and cycle through almost infinite variations of filters. Only instead of infinite options, you set up 300 presets, specially generated for you when you order. I use the Prolost LR presets already, and find them excellent, so these should be worth a try. From $40
Draft Control will track changes for any app you write in. Run it alongside your text editor or word processor of choice and it saves versions and tracks changes. You can compare any two versions with a visual editor, and you can find them in a constantly updated timeline at the side of the main window. It’s free to try, and you can unlock it for just $20.
MacPhun’s Lost Photos does one thing: It connects to your email and dredges up all the photos that have slipped down the back of the virtual sofa. You probably have zillions of old, forgotten pictures in your Gmail or wherever, and Lost Photos will find them and show them to you, then let you share them straight from the app, via Twitter, Facebook or – in a fit of recursion – email. Free to try, $3 for unlimited photos.
Taxonomy makes moving files easy. The window has source folders on the left, target folders on the right and a giant file preview in the middle. Zip through your files and simply click a target folder to send files there. It’s great for wrangling a whole lot of files, sending them off to different places or doing routine filing operations. Get it on the Mac App Store for just $5.
Drobo Time Machine
Poof! With the wave of its software-update-generating wand, Drobo has added Time Machine support to its redundant multi-disk storage devices. Now you can specify how much of your storage you want to be given over to Time Machine, and your Drobo will make only that much available for your Mac’s incremental backups. Normally, Time Machine would totally take over the disk like a cancer, growing until it was completely full. The update is free.
EditReady claims to be the fastest video transcoder, like, ever. It will crunch your video into a different format in around half the time of rivals, and it does it with an ultrasimple, minimal interface. This interface belies the software's power, though, as you can do anything from editing a clip’s metadata to picking one of many pro-level destination formats, right from EditReady's main window. How much for this fast pro tool? Just $50.
Folia is an impressive collaboration app from the folks behind the iAnnotate PDF app. It comes on iOS, Mac, Windows and Android, and it’s a streamlined word processor that lets you mark up and annotate your documents. Better, these annotations live in the cloud, separate from but married to the document, so they persist even as you update the source files. You can also attach more documents to any section of your master file. To be honest, I can’t quite understand it yet, but it looks rad, and costs nothing.
Overcast (no, not that Overcast) is a beautiful B&W weather app for the iPhone. If you were to write the weather forecast in your favorite text editor, and then sprinkle it with some high-quality monochrome clip art to represent clouds, rain and sun, then you’d have Overcast. Except that unlike Overcast, your RTFD document wouldn’t offer hyperlocal forecasts from Forecast.io. Free.
Gadget Watch: Aug. 16, 2014
Cooking, charging, carrying and, uh, cufflinking. Yes, this week’s Gadget Watch is all about the c-word. We even have a cubic camera, a keyboard with a nipple (which doesn’t start with "C" but it’s close -- and clicky).
OXO Goodgrips Silicone Collapsible Colander
Tiny kitchen? Hatred of unitaskers? Try the OXO Goodgrips Silicone Collapsible Colander, a fold-flat colander that can be used to wash and drain food, and also to cook it – heat-resistant to 600˚F, it can be dropped in boiling water to quickly boil veggies, then dish-washed, collapsed and filed back on your shelf. $30
LIFT standing desk
Who needs a standing desk when you can just drop the LIFT on top of the desk you already own? Sure, it might look a little like a crappy TV stand flipped upside-down, but it is in fact a smart desk with cable routing, a drink holder, a mousemat (!), tablet and phone docking slots, and even a dry-erase whiteboard. Plus the height can be configured to suit you. It’s also a lot cheaper than a standing desk, although not cheaper than my repurposed €40 workbench with sawn-off legs. From $248
Waterfield Vertigo bag
Waterfield is on a roll this summer, and the Vertigo is the latest bag I want to sling over my shoulder. It’s a vertical notebook bag that looks and works a lot like Waterfield’s Franklin Tote. Inside the main zip-open chamber are pockets set into a golden lining, with a magazine pocket on the outside for even more gear. Hand and shoulder straps are made from soft-an-strong seat belt webbing, and you can choose from black ballistic nylon or waxed canvas, in two colors and three sizes (from iPad Air to MacBook Pro). From $129.
Bike chain cufflinks
These bike-chain cufflinks are frikkin awesome. They’re also probably a little too heavy for anything other than the most stiffly starched of double-folding shirt cuffs, but who really cares? They’re also pretty easy to make if you have access to an old chain and a chain splitter – and if you’re even reading this it’s pretty certain that you do. Thankfully they’re not too pricey, although the shipping from Australia might be. $50
Endurapro buckling spring keyboard with nipple
It’s hard to express how much I love my clicky Filco Majestouch keyboard, but I’ll give it a go. “Nyyyyhhhhaaah!” That’s the sound of a man’s “exit push,” as it were. But I’m willing to forego my Cherry MX Blue key switches for a while in order to try out the awesome Endurapro, which uses buckling spring switches (like the old IBM Model M keyboard). Not only that, but it even has a red nipple and mouse buttons, so you don’t need to reach out like 5 feet to the right, over the cursor block and number pad, just to reach your mouse. £99
Vier Compact Collapsible Lock
I’m skeptical of buying a bike lock off Kickstarter, but I appreciate clever new design, and the Vier is certainly clever. It’s like two U-locks combined, with twin locking bars and dual side shafts. This lets it collapse down into a small package, but it also means you have to fasten two separate locks, one on each cylinder. $80
The Biolite KettleCharge was invented when somebody put a TV remote on top of a giant pub ashtray and something clicked in their brain. The result is a kettle that boils water and simultaneously charges your USB device (the 10-watt output will even fast-charge iPads). The kettle has a thermoelectric generator in its base, which uses the difference in temperature between the hot fire/stove beneath and the cold water above to create a current. But all you need to know is that you can make you morning coffee and charge your iPhone at the same time. $150
Polaroid Cube camera
This cute cubic camera is a lifelogger with a Polaroid label. The 1080p, 6MP camera shoots wide (124-degree) stills or video and has a built-in mounting magnet in the base. It can also connect to various mounts (tripod, bike) and even slide into an equally cute waterproof case. When I see a lifelogger camera I just quail at the responsibility of organizing all those hours of footage, but a stronger person might enjoy the fact that they can gather hours of boring video for just $100.
Grovemade walnut keyboard tray
Grovemade’s beautiful tray not only holds your Apple aluminum wireless keyboard, it also converts the useless gap underneath into a handy storage space. Better still, that space is sculpted into compartments, with space for spare AA batteries (three of ‘em), paperclips (a piece of stationery that is now only used for ejecting SIM trays and resetting routers) and – LOL – business cards. Price? $59
I took the Filco MiniLa Air Bluetooth keyboard with me on vacation this year to use with a MacBook Air propped up on the fantastic Roost stand. I use the tenkeyless Filco Majestouch at home, and I was hoping for the same super-accurate, clicky-key action in this battery-powered, portable wireless version.
And I almost got it. But for one major flaw, the MiniLa is almost as good as the desktop version. The good news is, that flaw might just be a personal quibble.