The Future: A Recharging Nightmare

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My current device-with-screen line-up.

1) A computer with two screens. The best computer I have ever owned, still fast and versatile and a joy to use. It doesn’t move, though, so…

2) An iPad, which is rad for most cases, but it too big and heavy for when I want to watch Breaking Bad on a train/in the bath, so…

3) A nexus 7, which is light and convenient and holds many hours of TV shows, runs for many hours and outputs decent sound through the headphones jack. It has no cellular connectivity, though, so…

4) An iPhone, which is ideal for making phone calls and sending texts. Games, whilst beautiful in many cases, are poorly thought-through and shallow, as well as barely playtested. So…

5) A PSP… an ancient device that is still like a small miracle, featuring games of great depth and often involving characters from the finest imaginary worlds. It’s slowly dying, though, in terms of both battery and available content, so…

6) A Nintendo 3DS XL. Providing a visual magic trick that I can only describe as “witchcraft” and games with a proven history and exhaustive care and attention, this bad boy is the shit. However, classic gaming doesn’t work well on ANY of the above platforms, so…

7) An ion iCade containing an iPad 1 (jailbroken). This thing is THE SHIT for playing Donkey Kong on.

Of course, none of the above can run Skyrim, so…

8) (in the other room) a PS3.

Conclusion: While it’s possible to “do everything” on most of these devices, it’s still a compromised experience in almost all cases apart from the narrow range of things each device is great for. In order to enjoy/use the current (and historic) collection of electronic stuff, I appear to have ended up with a separate device for each action, which is basically where we were 20 years ago.

I don’t think I have a point, really… apart from to say that THIS IS NOT WHAT IT IS LIKE IN THE FUTURE I IMAGINED, and I seem to spend half my life recharging things.

Conquist 2 – iPad Review

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Well, it is Risk, but it’s cheaper, you can play it online and it’s a pleasure to play.

The AI is a bit sucky… If you’re in the final two with a couple of cards, you shouldn’t lose unless you’re shit at Risk… but it’s strong enough to make it challenging.

Well worth whatever pittance it costs. Good work. :)

The Ion iCade. A Review.

The ion icade is fundamentally a bluetooth keyboard that has been made to look and feel like a traditional arcade stick and buttons. When you do stuff, your ipad thinks you’re pressing keys on and responds accordingly, which for almost all games will be to do nothing and wait for you to paw and poke the screen like an animal.

This means that it’ll only work with games that support it, and those are seemingly limited to a endless pile of faux retro nonsense. However, it is compatible with Namco, Atari and Midway’s arcade offerings and most importantly a mame emulator that was briefly available in the app store and you can now only get if you’ve jailbroken your iPad.

Anyway, I doubt very much you care about this and are simply wondering if your hipster friends will think you’re an uber geek when you invite them round to watch Ghostbusters and circle-jerk over your Marvel comic collection.

Well, you’re in luck. Buy this thing and you’ll have another artifact that suggests you mis-spent your youth in a tragic manner that is now fashionable beyond belief.

To ion’s credit, as well as cashing in on the unbearable trendiness of retrospective gaming, they have made something that genuinely works very well. It feels sturdy and solid, hooks up to the iPad’s bluetooth reliably when the iPad comes near and it’s priced perfectly to make you feel like you’re getting a little more than you could have expected.

Most importantly it somehow magically breaks through the psychological barrier that had previously made emulation feel like witnessing, rather than experiencing some of the greatest games ever made, and that’s the reason it’s worth your time.

Towards a Serene Home Screen

I enjoy a spot of mobile onanism as much as the next man. I really do.

I can swipe around on the iPad all day. I love the sight of hundreds of icons swooshing around under the awesome power of my right thumb.

I was doing something silly, though, and I wanted to fix it. This article describes my solution and rationale.

Prepare to be enthralled. I have written this is the hope that it will help anyone frustrated with their iOS home screen layout. If you’re not interested in that, I suggest you don’t read any further.

The Problem

When I actually wanted a specific app, I was using the search. The home screen had become a toy for me to dick around with when looking for something to do, but not a place to actually find apps. Something needed to be done. Thankfully half the world and Apple agreed.

Apple’s Solution

The introduction of folders in iOS4 made my heart sink. Folders?! Just as I was being unwillingly nudged along the gangplank into a post-filesystem future (which I was willing to accept was *for the best*), I was also being encouraged to re-order my shit into something that was named after a metaphor used in the filesystem present. Mind: BLOWN. We’d now put apps into the imaginary things that we’re not supposed to think our files are in.

However, I was thoroughly overwhelmed by my many, many pages of 16 or 20 icons. For the next 12 months or so, conversations in our home ran thusly…

“What are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know… just re-arranging the icons on my iPad.”
“Really? That’s good, dear.”

“What are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know… just re-arranging the icons on my iPad.”
“Again? Did you not get it right last time?”
“Yes, but there are new apps.”

“What are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know… just re-arranging the icons on my iPad.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No, I didn’t like them all in folders, it looked awkward and felt imperfect with the borderline choices. Plus, there were folders there that I only created for consistency, containing only one or two apps.”

“What are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know… just re-arranging the icons on my iPad.”
“You are a mental case.”
“No, I’ve got it this time… each screen represents a type of app, and…”

“What are you doing, honey?”
“Oh, you know… just re-arranging the icons on my iPad.”
“I am leaving you.”

Every time I tried to use folders I would forget something. Is the twitter client in the “reading app” folder or the “messaging” folder? Should I have two twitter clients just to do that?

No kind of organisation was satisfying and perfect. In folders it was hard to dig around, but all out on the desktop looked overwhelming to me. I couldn’t find the things I wanted quickly by scanning. It was a FIRST WORLD NIGHTMARE.

Eureka Moment!

Then it hit me. The thing was enraging me. It was frustrating me because I was trying to organise for productivity. The idea was to create a layout that would save me seconds of time, and only if I committed it to memory.

Saving seconds was clearly crazy. I had wasted hours arranging icons that I would never get back by knowing exactly where an app was before I even opened my iPad cover, and being able to navigate to it in the smallest number of swooshes and taps.

That was foolish because I enjoy the swooshes and taps! That’s why I got an iPad.

I was not arranging for serenity.

I wanted to enjoy opening up the cover and using the device. It didn’t matter if it too a few seconds to get to the app I wanted.

What mattered was:

1) Everything would look beautiful
2) Any app would be easy to find (not the same as quick)
3) The app would be easy to see (not the same as find)
4) The layout would not require maintenance (new apps could slot in without reorganization)
5) The screen would feel uncluttered at all times

4 and 5 became crucial to me forming the following notion:

Having four or five lines of four or five apps is not serene.

The logical question was: “How many lines is optimal?” My answer is two.

1) Spotting the app you want out of 10 apps is easy*.
2) It’s possible to swipe around in the middle of the screen without obscuring icons.
3) It looks *calm* somehow.
4) There is lots of room for manipulation/reorganisation.

*I am an almost universally portrait-oriented iPad user.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you… The @achipinthesugar iPad Home Screen Layout.

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The Dock

Tweetbot, Messages, Safari, Mail, Evernote, Omnifocus.

Capture and messaging, basically. Easy.

Home Screen 1 – Quick!

Calendar, Maps, Dropbox, Screens, App Store, Airport Utility, Settings.

This is the home home screen, and the temptation was to put the apps I use most here. Error. The apps that go here are the apps that are needed briefly. A quick look at the calendar. A quick look at the map. A quick look on the App Store… you get the idea.

Basically, finding the app shouldn’t take longer than using it.

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Home Screen 2 – Writing

Simplenote, Elements, Byword, WordPress, Textastic, iA Writer, Anyfidelity (website), achipinthesugar (website), Our Man in Hong Kong (website), 88Keys.tv (website).

Writing apps! Why so many? Believe me, this is the reduced list. I enjoy text editors. Don’t judge me.

This is Home Screen 2 so that it jumps on me and tells me to write before I can find the other stuff. The website links are there just so I can easily check how my writing looks.

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Home Screen 3 – Passive Consumption

Mr Reader, Instapaper, Kindle, Eng Launchpad, Comics, Chinagram, Downcast, TED, CineX Player, VLC

Watching, reading, listening… new things appear here and I consume them. These apps are collected by the context “I have time to consume something, give me options”. More than two lines on a screen like this is overwhelming. Ten apps seems just right.

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Home Screen 4 – Games

Folder: Board Games, Zen Pinball, Civ Rev, Pirates!, Where’s My Water, Broken Sword 2, Minecraft PE, Super Stickman Golf, SMRPG, Chaos Rings 2

A folder! Why?! After all that we’ve said! I feel cheated.

Gaming feels different. If you’ve got time to sit and play a video game, you’ve got time to browse a catalogue.

That said, I felt overwhelmed by game overload, and the size of many games was taking up so much of my 32GB that it was frustrating filling/emptying my DivX player apps.

Again, 10 spots seemed like a happy medium, with special dispensation given to board games because, well, they’re board games.

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Home Screen 5 – Lay That Shit Out

Folder: Drawing Apps, Keynote, Pages, Skitch, PS Express, Photos, iMovie, iPhoto, Camera

Ugh. This page doesn’t seem satisfactory to me, but it’s basically “doing something visual”. To be continued…

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Home Screen 6 – Music

iReal B, Garageband, Music, Spotify, iBooks, DM1 (Drum Machine), ThumbJam

Self explanatory, really, and not very exciting if you’re not into music. iBooks may seem strange here, but my iBooks/PDFs are mainly music ones.

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Home Screen 7 – AAARRRGGGHHHH.

Folder: Gubbins, Newsstand

Things I cannot remove from the device, but never use. I won’t rant. Just take a deep breath and move on…

SO! You made it!

Well, thanks for checking this out. It has been a few weeks since I started writing this, and it holds up pretty nicely on iPad and iPhone.

Results:

1) I’m not Spotlight searching for apps anymore at all.
2) I spot apps easily, rather than memorise their location, taking weight off my mind.
3) I enjoy using my iPad more than I did now that I have removed a frustration.
4) I don’t obscure the things I’m looking at (even more so on my iPhone).

I think it’s easy to criticise an OS before you’ve really had a think about how to use it in a way that suits you. It’s not the OS’s responsibility to make you use it well.

If you’d like to get in touch, or learn about it when I next make a lengthy and fascinating post of this nature, I am @achipinthesugar on twitter.

Mantis Bible Study for iOS – A Review

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You know God Almighty? The one brimming with mastery and elegance, who created all things bright and beautiful?

How best to honour Him?

“Mantis Bible Corporation” has the answer.

An iOS app with all the charm of rabies, bearing a bizarre and creepy “digital crucifix” icon.

Opportunistically slap “scrivener” in the description for extra hits (how I ended up here) and you are bringing God’s love into the 2010s with the kind of dignity it would deserve if it was real.

Way to go, Mantis.

Diablo 3 – A Review

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is David and I clicked on things for three full working days in the last week.

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It all started when I clicked on a ghoulish figure that was munching on a cadaver in the road ahead of me. It died instantly. Another identical ghoulish figure appeared farther down the road. It was clear what I must do… click the fucker.

Extending this story any further would serve only to produce a novel-length rundown of my clicking antics and the subsequent death of a variety of monsters, skeletons and evil people. I shall tell you this, though… some of these foes require several clicks.

Of course, to glibly describe Diablo as “a game in which you click on enemies and they die” would be as crass and unfair as splitting an infinitive earlier in this sentence in a bid to prick up the ears of any trigger-happy pedant only to catch them out by later appearing to know what I was doing.

They might come back by saying that the sentence was needlessly over-compounded, but BOOM. 2-0.

In any event… you do click on stuff and it does die and to give the impression that this isn’t what I’ve done for 21.5 hours this week while other people slaved over a hot spreadsheet or rustled up a delicious meal for their families would be disingenuous.

The thing is, guys… “the click, click, click… dead” mechanic is moreish.

So, you’re in a dungeon, right, and it’s been randomly generated (for the most part) and so the goal you seek could be round this next corner… and in any case, round this next corner will definitely be something you can click on that will die. Just one more goblin. Just one more corner. Just one more exit to find. Then bed. Really.

Blizzard Entertainment have honed their mad skillz in this hamster-wheel gaming model to perfection over the best part of a decade with World of Warcraft, where most of my clicking used to be done before a painful intervention was made by my family, friends and ISP.

You see… as soon as I feel I have had enough of the loop… another baddie, another corner, another exit, another mission… DING! My bitch “levels up”. I get a new spell. When I click, things LOOK DIFFERENT. I’m harder, badder, cooler.

Every so often I get a new sword or something. It looks different. It makes me more bad-ass.

I also collect money all the time and I can spend in shops on things to make me click harder! It’s all so banal. It is a lesson in something important. A lesson I could learn and benefit from if I wasn’t so incredibly busy clicking on things.

Of the two words “Blizzard Entertainment”, the first is substantially more descriptive than the second. Very little of this game is entertaining, really… but it’s a bona-fide blizzard of tiny rewards and goals and rewards and goals and OMG! RARE SWORD! FUCK! I MUST SEE WHAT THIS DOES TO A GOBLIN.

All the best songs mature with age, sometimes demonstrating an insight that appears prescient. I believe it was the legendary social commentator Seal who sang “Solitary brother… there is still a part of you that wants to live”, presumably in anticipation of the loneliness associated with one’s 15th hour of survival in the lonesome dungeons of the undead featured in Diablo 3.

The icing on this genius cake is that you can hook up with strangers and friends to click on monsters together… and you’re rewarded handsomely for doing so. The baddies all get harder, the game more challenging, the loot more precious… and occasionally the camaraderie so genuine and warm that the “roleplay” part of this game has become tangible without any intention on the part of anyone. When you meet a stranger and they’re helping you kill demons and you’re helping them and it’s all frantic and clicky… you forget they’re not really a wizard or whatever until you think about it, which there’s no time for. Clicking needs doing.

I am saying “you”, but I mean “me”. You probably think this is a terrible waste of time and money, and if you don’t, you’re probably too busy clicking on trolls to have an opinion.

Therein lies my ambivalence about Diablo 3. As a piece of interactive fiction, the story is acceptable, but basically sucks. The narrative bits are phenomenally well made but suffer from weak acting and a plot woefully short of surprises. The sad fact is that this is completely irrelevant. You could be a triangle that needs to click on all the squares to save Geometry Land. It’s all about the clicking, dying, upgrading, clicking cycle, which has been crafted to perfection.

Ultimately Diablo 3 is like obtaining a roll of bubble wrap and an OCD on the same day. Inside its clutches there is nothing else that matters, and it’s top-level escapism from the masters thereof. If you have giant blocks of free time and you’re given to boredom and self-loathing, I can wholeheartedly recommend this game. It is distracting, magnetic, hypnotic and, dare I say, meditative. Emerging from a four-hour Diablo session can be like stepping into a brand new day with uncommon clarity and presence of mind because it’s impossible to think about all the clutter of your real life.

Of course, clicking a mouse for four hours doesn’t get any of that clutter sorted out, either. Proceed with caution.

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