Today my favorite dictionary app, LookUp, was updated to version 5.2 on iOS and watchOS. The update centers around a new, modernized Watch app with a feature I'm really excited about: Siri face support for the word of the day. The Watch app isn't the only noteworthy improvement though, as LookUp has also added Handoff support and search improvements on iOS.
Search results for "LookUp"
We all know that it's important to regularly learn new things, but often the busyness of life crowds out that learning and we settle into routines that make learning unnecessary. Fortunately, one of the things made possible by iOS 12 and the new Shortcuts app is that you can create your own custom "routines" of sorts with the help of Siri, and integrate daily learning into those routines.
In that vein, the excellent dictionary app LookUp was updated this week to version 5, which takes advantage of Siri shortcuts in iOS 12 to offer access to the word of the day via Siri. The update also brings a new Collections feature, additional shortcut options, and more.
LookUp is a beautifully designed dictionary app that we first reviewed earlier this year. With its effective use of bold headings and colorful graphics atop a white background, Lookup visually looks like a sister app to Apple’s new App Store – and considering how much I love the new App Store, that’s high praise. I won’t spend any time on the basics of the app though, as you can check out Jake’s original review for that. Instead, I want to focus on how LookUp harnesses the power of new iOS 11 technologies.
When considering a traditional dictionary, the words “fast” and “beautiful” don’t come to mind; even our digital dictionaries, sometimes coming in the form of iOS' Look Up feature when highlighting a word, don’t do a great job of looking good, providing all the relevant information, and appearing in enough time to make it worth the process.
With LookUp, I’ve found things to be different – it’s a dictionary app built on convenience, design, and lots of information.
At WWDC 2018, Craig Federighi provided a sneak peek at what everyone was calling Marzipan: an as-yet-unnamed way for iPad app developers to bring their apps to the Mac. So, it came as no surprise when Federighi retook the stage in 2019 and revealed more details about the project and its official name: Catalyst.
What caught a lot of developers off guard though was SwiftUI, a declarative approach to building user interfaces that was also announced at WWDC this year. SwiftUI, known before the conference as Amber, its rumored project name, was on developers' radar almost as long as Catalyst, but it's fair to say that few anticipated the scope of the project. The purpose of SwiftUI is to allow developers to build native user interfaces across all of Apple's hardware platforms – from the Apple Watch to the Mac – using highly-readable, declarative syntax and a single set of tools and APIs. If that weren't enough to get developers' attention, using SwiftUI carries the added advantage of providing features like dark mode, dynamic type, and localization automatically.
The message from WWDC was clear: SwiftUI is the future, a unified approach to UI development designed to simplify the process of targeting multiple hardware platforms. It's a bold, sprawling goal that will take years to refine, even if it's eagerly adopted by developers.
However, SwiftUI also raises an interesting question: what does it mean for Catalyst? If SwiftUI is the future and spans every hardware platform, why bother bringing iPad apps to the Mac with Catalyst in the first place? It's a fair question, but the answer is readily apparent from the very different goals of the two technologies.
SwiftUI serves the long-term goal of bringing UI development for all of Apple's platforms under one roof and streamlining it. It won't take over immediately though. There's still work to be done on the framework itself, which Apple will surely expand in capability over time.
By contrast, Catalyst is a shorter-term initiative designed to address two soft spots in Apple's lineup: the stagnation of the Mac app ecosystem, and the slow growth of pro iPad apps. The unstated assumption underlying the realignment seems to be that the two app platforms are stronger tied together than they are apart, which ultimately will protect the viability of their hardware too.
The impact of Catalyst on the Mac and iPad remains murky. It's still too early in the process to understand what the long-term effect will be on either platform. There's substantial execution risk that could harm the Mac or iPad, but despite some troubling signs, which I'll get to in due course, I'm convinced that Catalyst has the potential for meaningful improvements to both platforms, especially the Mac. Let's take a closer look at what those could be.
Vidit Bhargava, UI designer for the excellent LookUp dictionary app, details in a Medium post how implementing an OLED-friendly dark theme in an app is more complicated than one might think. For example:
When an interface that uses a black theme for its background starts displaying content on the screen, the pixels needs to switch on before they can display the content. So, when you’re scrolling through the content in a black background, the pixels find it hard to keep pace with your scrolling, resulting in a smear on the screen.
Bhargava uses the following tweet from Marc Edwards to illustrate this smearing issue.
What does OLED black smearing look like? In this example, the dark grey square seems to be lagging behind the light grey square, but they’re locked together. (Needs to be viewed on an OLED screen.) pic.twitter.com/WYFEXKAvsG
— Marc Edwards (@marcedwards) October 20, 2018
The solution utilized in LookUp was making its black theme not entirely black, but a dark enough grey that it appears black in use.
The rest of the post outlines the impact of black, dark grey, and white themes on a device’s battery life, along with the readability challenges inherent to black themes. It’s a fascinating read, and goes to show that a quality OLED-optimized dark theme requires a lot of thought and care to achieve.
Any time a new app launches in the same category as a first-party, pre-installed app, there's always a lot to prove. It's one thing to find new customers in a market limited to third-party options, where prospective users have to pay one way or another to access an app in that category. But when there's a free, built-in option, third-party apps not only have to prove that they're good apps, they also have to offer enough extra benefit above and beyond what the Apple-designed default provides. The bar for such apps is raised higher in many ways.
Facing that challenge today is a new app from Flexibits, Cardhop for iOS, which serves as the iPhone and iPad companion to the contacts app launched for Mac in late 2017. Powered by a convenient natural language input system, Cardhop includes a host of features that differentiate it from Apple's Contacts app and pose a strong threat to the iOS default.
Today, DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused web search engine, began using Apple Maps for location-based searches. The company, which previously used OpenStreetMap, switched to Apple's MapKit JS framework, which Apple introduced at WWDC in June 2018.
General search results and DuckDuckGo's Maps tab both embed Apple Maps' familiar UI with options to display street, satellite, and hybrid views of locations combined with Yelp data for businesses and other destinations. According to DuckDuckGo, users can search by address, geographical place, business name and type, and nearby. Clicking or tapping on the map preview in search results expands the map while selecting a location highlights it on the map.
With respect to location tracking, DuckDuckGo says:
DuckDuckGo explains elsewhere on its site that it uses GEO::IP lookup to determine users' location by default. For better results, users can grant DuckDuckGo permission to use their browser location data, in which case DuckDuckGo says searches are still anonymous because the company does not store location data on its servers.
I tried DuckDuckGo's new Apple Maps integration with several different searches. The search engine had no problem finding the coffee shop I was at this morning, and the familiar Apple Maps UI is a definite plus. However, the results weren't as good when I ran a few 'near me' searches. Searches for coffee, pizza, and barbers 'near me' all returned better results before I granted DuckDuckGo access to my location. Of course, these are just a few non-scientific searches from one location, so your results may be different.
Putting together my annual list of Must-Have iOS Apps is an exercise in analyzing the trends of the year and considering which ones had the biggest impact on how I use my iPhone and iPad. Two years ago, it was web services and open APIs; last year, I focused on collaboration with the MacStories team and making my workflow consistent across devices; this year, there isn't a single overarching theme behind this list, but rather a collection of trends and changes that I've observed over the course of 2018.
First and foremost is the switch to a subscription-based business model by some of my favorite apps. As we noted in our look at the modern economics of the App Store earlier this year, it is becoming increasingly challenging for indie developers – the ones who make the apps we tend to use and cover most frequently on MacStories – to find a balance between reaching new customers with paid app updates and supporting an app over the span of multiple years for existing users who already paid once.
A subscription seems like an obvious solution: new customers can try an app for free and later decide to subscribe; longtime users of an app get to support their favorite app over a longer period of time; developers are more incentivized to keep making an app better thanks to the financial security provided by an ongoing revenue stream. Recurring subscriptions for all apps launched two years ago just before WWDC, and it feels like we've only now reached a point where more and more developers are willing to experiment with them. This major shift in app pricing wasn't always met favorably by longtime users of existing apps, which has resulted in developers testing different approaches such as optional subscriptions, bundles containing subscriptions and In-App Purchases, or even multiple ways to unlock the same features. In looking at the apps included in this list, I was surprised by how many now include some form of recurring subscription; I think this transition will only become more prominent in 2019.
The second trend I noticed in my usage of third-party apps is a strong preference for those that fully embrace modern iOS technologies. From Siri shortcuts (by far, the most important iOS developer framework of 2018) to Files integration and support for external keyboards on iPad, I tend to prioritize apps that eschew proprietary functionalities and adopt native APIs such as iCloud, the Files document browser, or Reminders. With iOS growing more powerful and complex each year, I think it's only natural that I've stuck with apps that shy away from Apple-provided solutions as little as possible; those frameworks are always going to be more integrated with the rest of the system than any alternative a developer can come up with, and I seek that level of integration because I enjoy the comfort of an ecosystem where all the pieces work well together.
Lastly, I've noticed some overall changes in the kinds of apps I consider my must-haves for iPhone and iPad. In the "pro" app department, the Photography and Development lists have grown to include apps such as Lightroom, Scriptable, Darkroom, and Halide – all new entries this year. One of my goals with the new iPad Pro is to use it as a workstation for editing photos and programming my own little additions to iOS; I felt like my increased usage of these apps warranted some changes in the annual picks. You will also find more apps designed to interact with macOS as a result of my purchase of a Mac mini (which I'm using as a home server for various tasks) and different utility apps as some of the old ones have been replaced by Shortcuts. An app that, by the way, I can no longer include in this roundup due to my self-imposed rule of not featuring Apple apps because they're kind of obvious choices for an iOS user (this also applies to Shazam, officially acquired by Apple this year).
Below, you'll find a collection of the 60 apps I consider my must-haves on the iPhone and iPad, organized in nine categories; whenever possible, I included links to original reviews and past coverage on MacStories. What you will not find is the usual list of awards for best new app and best app update, which we've relaunched as a team effort under the MacStories Selects name this year. Instead, at the end of the story you'll find my App of the Year, which is also joining MacStories Selects as an award that recognizes an overall outstanding iOS app that had a profound impact on my workflow over the past year, regardless of its release date.
Let's dig in.