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PCalc Developer James Thomson Shares His Catalyst Experience

James Thomson, the creator of PCalc, has written about his experience with Catalyst. Thomson, who was one of the developers that spoke with Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman about the challenges Catalyst poses to developers and their customers, expounds on what he told Gurman, saying about PCalc that:

It became pretty clear to me that I would need to rewrite a lot of the user interface, to find a happy middle ground between the iPad and the Mac. Which would probably benefit both in the long run, to be fair. But with everything else that was going on this summer, I couldn’t justify that work, with no guarantees at the end of the day that I would have something I was happy to ship. So, I mainly focused my time on things like Shortcuts and Dark Mode, and iOS 13 support in general.

Thomson goes on to explain that while it was simple to get a version of PCalc’s iOS app running on the Mac, the APIs for dealing with macOS-specific features felt rough and unfinished.

That’s something I’ve heard from a lot of developers who were initially excited about Catalyst. They also had their hands full dealing with iOS and iPadOS 13, and bugs in both OSes slowed them down over the summer. As a result, many put their Catalyst plans on the back burner.

Thomson also says that:

Documentation for Catalyst has been almost non-existent too, which has made things a lot harder than they should be.

From the business side, there is also no way for somebody to get the Catalyst version of the app for free when they buy the iOS version. And no great way to share in-app purchases either if you have a free app. That generally means that somebody will have to pay a second time to get a copy.

Instead of pushing forward with a Catalyst version of PCalc, which is already available for the Mac as a traditional AppKit app, Thomson created a Catalyst version of Dice by PCalc, his physics-based multi-sided dice simulation that can be used for games like Dungeons & Dragons. Based on his experience with Dice, which is available on the Mac App Store now, Thomson concluded that Catalyst isn’t far enough along to build a version of PCalc that is better than his existing Mac app, but he remains hopeful that the situation will improve.

From what I’ve heard from developers, Thomson is not alone in his experience with Catalyst. That’s not to say there aren’t useful apps being made with Catalyst, but so far, the pool of apps is small, and if it’s going to grow, Catalyst is going to have to evolve rapidly.

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PCalc 3.9 Adds Dark Mode and the Latest Shortcuts Features, Expanding the App’s Automation Capabilities

Last year when Siri shortcuts debuted on iOS 12, developer James Thomson added one of the first and best implementations for creating custom shortcuts with his calculator app PCalc. However, iOS 12 required PCalc to rely on the system clipboard as a means of passing inputs to calculations and then outputting the results, which added complexity to shortcuts that used PCalc actions. iOS and iPadOS 13 free PCalc of that constraint, and with the addition of parameter support and the conversational Siri shortcuts coming in iOS and iPadOS 13.1, PCalc’s automation features are vastly more powerful.

Federico’s review of PCalc 3.8 featured a shortcut called PCalc Currencies, which is a terrific example of what a PCalc-based shortcut looked like in iOS 12. The shortcut coverts Euros to US Dollars and British Pounds. The first step is to pass the number of Euros to the shortcut from the system clipboard and then create a variable to store that value. Next, the shortcut uses PCalc’s conversion action to calculate the US Dollar equivalent, store it in a separate variable, and then do the same for pounds. The final step displays the results using each of the three currency variables. In total, the shortcut uses twelve actions, many of which involve moving data on and off the clipboard.

PCalc Currencies for iOS 12 (left) and iOS 13 (right).

PCalc Currencies for iOS 12 (left) and iOS 13 (right).

With PCalc’s new Shortcuts actions, we can reduce the number of actions from twelve to just four. It’s a fantastic demonstration of the power that iOS and iPadOS 13 add to third-party shortcut actions and the reduction in complexity that can be achieved with even a relatively simple shortcut. Okay, let’s update Federico’s shortcut.

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PCalc 3.8 Adds Support for iOS 12’s Siri Shortcuts, Including Powerful Clipboard Commands

PCalc, James Thomson’s advanced calculator for iPhone and iPad, has been updated this week to version 3.8. I’ve been testing PCalc 3.8 for the past couple of months on my devices running iOS 12, and it features one of the best implementations of Siri shortcuts I’ve seen from a third-party developer yet. Even more than the app’s excellent widget, shortcuts have enabled me to integrate PCalc features into different aspects of my daily workflow, including conversations with Siri via my HomePods.

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PCalc’s Delightfully Insane About Screen

As apps updated for iOS 11 begin to trickle out onto the App Store, it’s fitting that the first of what will be many reviews on MacStories in the coming days features ARKit, which from all indications is a big hit with developers. Even more fitting though, is that the app reviewed is PCalc by James Thomson. PCalc is an excellent calculator app that was one of Federico’s ‘Must Have’ apps of 2016. It’s available on iOS devices, the Apple Watch, and even the Apple TV. Still, you wouldn’t expect it to incorporate 3D animation or augmented reality, but that is exactly what the latest version of PCalc has tucked away in its settings.

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PCalc for Apple Watch

For a few months now, I’ve been using PCalc as my only calculator and currency converter on iOS. As I wrote last year after the release of the app’s iOS 8 update, the ability to customize layouts and have fast access from Notification Center lets me launch PCalc quickly from anywhere and come up with my own custom buttons for frequent calculations and conversions.

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Apple Asks PCalc Developer to Remove iOS 8 Widget

As tweeted by PCalc developer James Thomson today, he will be forced to remove the app’s iOS 8 widget. Following an approval that saw PCalc 3.3 launch alongside iOS 8 and a feature in Apple’s “Great Apps for iOS 8” App Store section, the company has informed Thomson that “Notification Center widgets on iOS cannot perform any calculations”.

Curious app rejections aren’t new to the App Store, but being forced to remove a feature that was approved, featured by the App Store team, and appreciated by thousands of users is a different story. As Thomson tweeted, he invested time and resources into the development of the widget, which was a fantastic addition to the app and a nice way to perform quick calculations directly in the Today view of Notification Center. More importantly, it was a great showcase of the new capabilities of iOS 8.

Thomson wasn’t alone in thinking that a widget calculator would be a good idea: dozens of iOS 8 widgets with the same feature have been released since last month (such as Wdgts) and Apple itself offers a calculator widget in OS X Yosemite.

But even with the following examples in mind, being forced to remove apps or features that had been previously approved isn’t news either (case in point). Rather, what is disappointing is the persistence of contradicting signals from a company that many developers saw as “more open” after WWDC ‘14. Developers like Thomson will keep finding themselves in the position of risking to implement a feature or create an app that may be approved, gain users, and be shut down by Apple for a sudden policy change.

PCalc will continue to be a great app even without its widget. But at some point, we’ll have to wonder whether technology limitations or murky App Store policies are truly holding iOS back, preventing developers from building innovative iOS-first apps that dare to go beyond the status quo. Today, that’s happening to a calculator widget.



My Must-Have Apps, 2019 Edition

My Home screens.

My Home screens.

Every year in late October, I start putting together a rough list of candidates for my annual ‘Must-Have Apps’ story, which I’ve historically published in late December, right before the holiday break. As you can tell by the date on this article, the 2019 edition of this story is different: not only did I spend the last months of the year testing a variety of new apps and betas, but I also kept tweaking my Home screen to accomodate MusicBot and new Home screen shortcuts. As a result, it took me a bit longer to finalize the 2019 collection of my must-have apps; in the process, however, I’ve come up with a slightly updated format that I believe will scale better over the next few years.

In terms of app usage, 2019 was a year of stabilization for me. Having settled on a specific writing workflow revolving around iA Writer and Working Copy, and having figured out a solution to record podcasts from my iPad Pro, I spent the year fine-tuning my usage of those apps, refining my file management habits thanks to iPadOS’ improved Files app, and cutting down on the number of apps I kept tucked away in folders on my iPhone and iPad.

Two themes emerged over the second half of 2019, though. First, thanks to various improvements in iOS and iPadOS 13, I increased my reliance on “first-party” Apple apps: I embraced the new Reminders app and its exclusive features, stopped using third-party note-taking apps and moved everything to Notes, and switched back to Apple Mail as my default email client. I’ve written about the idea of comfort in the Apple ecosystem before, and I’ve seen that concept work its way into my app preferences more and more over the course of 2019.

The second theme, unsurprisingly, is my adoption of a hybrid Home screen that combines apps and shortcuts powered by our custom MacStories Shortcuts Icons. Following changes to running shortcuts from the Home screen in iOS 13, I realized how much I was going to benefit from the ability to execute commands with the tap of an icon, so I decided to mix and match apps and shortcuts on my Home screens to maximize efficiency. Thanks to the different flavors of MacStories Shortcuts Icons (we just launched a Color set), I’ve been able to assemble a truly personalized Home screen layout that puts the best of both worlds – my favorite apps and custom shortcuts – right at my fingertips.

For this reason, starting this year you’ll find a new Home Screens section at the beginning of this roundup that covers the first tier of my must-have apps – the “ultimate favorites” I tend to keep on the Home screens of both devices. Because I like to keep my iPhone and iPad Home screens consistent, it made sense to start grouping these apps together in their own special section. These are the apps I use most on a daily basis; I’m pretty sure you’ll find at least a couple surprises this year.

This entire story features a collection of the 50 apps I consider my must-haves on the iPhone and iPad, organized in seven categories; whenever possible, I included links to original reviews and past coverage on MacStories. As for the traditional list of awards for best new app and best app update: those are now part of our annual MacStories Selects awards, which we published last December and you can find here.

Let’s dig in.

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