Posts in reviews

PDF Expert 2 for Mac Adds Powerful PDF Editing Features

PDF Expert launched on the Mac last November, and in my initial review I was pretty effusive, impressed at the level of functionality, polish, and speed for an initial release. At the time I even called it "a better Preview for PDFs", and had made PDF Expert the default application for viewing PDFs on my Mac. Nine months later, and it all still rings true. Better yet, Readdle is today launching a big version 2 update for PDF Expert which makes it an even better and more powerful app. Now you can now edit text, images, and outlines in PDFs, as well as password-protect your PDFs in PDF Expert 2.

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Game Day: Linia

Linia from Black Robot Games is fiendishly difficult, but strangely relaxing in its complexity. The challenge is to draw a straight line through a series of colored shapes that intersects the shapes in the order of the color sequence at the top of the screen. Here's the thing though, the shapes are moving, rotating, shrinking, growing, and changing color all at once. The movement follows a regular pattern, but it gets complicated fast.

Linia is a creature of the post-iOS 7 design aesthetic. Each of its 80 levels is composed of brightly-colored geometric flat shapes. What's ingenious about Linia and makes it particularly difficult is that it requires pattern matching, careful timing, and quick reflexes simultaneously. As you draw a line it appears white but fills in behind where you started in red, which is part of the timing element. You have to lift your finger to commit to your line before it turns completely red. If you wait to long, you'll have to start drawing your line all over, but if you release at the wrong time, you may be unable to hit the right color sequences.

I've played Linia on both my iPhone 6s Plus using my finger and on my 12.9 inch iPad Pro using the Apple Pencil. I give a slight edge to using the Pencil to play Linia on the iPad because you can draw such a precise line, but the difference between playing on the iPad and iPhone was much less than I expected.

The soundtrack that accompanies Linia plays a big role in minimizing the frustration of some of the harder puzzles. There's something inviting about the electronic vibe of the soundtrack that feels like it's encouraging you to stay a while to keep trying to beat even the hardest puzzles.

Black Robot has done a great job bringing something fresh and clever to the crowded puzzle genre on iOS. It's especially impressive given that this is Black Robot's first iOS game. With such a great start, I look forward to seeing what else Black Robot comes up with in the future.

Linia is available on the App Store for $1.99.

Faster RSS Subscribing with Feed Hawk

Sometimes a simple, single-purpose utility makes all the difference. Feed Hawk by John Brayton of Golden Hill Software is exactly that type of app. The app’s functionality is encapsulated in a share extension that makes it easier to subscribe to RSS news feeds in several major RSS services, including:

  • BazQux Reader,
  • Feed Wrangler,
  • Feedbin,
  • FeedHQ,
  • Inoreader,
  • Minimal Reader,
  • NewsBlur, and
  • The Old Reader.

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Castro 2 Review

Castro 2 from Supertop demonstrates that there is still plenty of room for innovation in podcast apps. Although every podcast app starts with the goal of helping listeners find and play podcasts, the path each app takes varies as widely as the listening habits of users.

Castro 2 eliminates much of the complexity of other podcast apps by focusing on a single podcast queue. The result is a focused listening experience that emphasizes episodes over shows, playlists, or feeds. It's not an approach that will appeal to everyone, but if you find yourself looking for a simpler way to manage podcasts, or listening to some, but not all, episodes of shows, Castro is worth considering.

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Game Day: Reigns

Have you ever wanted to rule your own kingdom? Of course you have. With Reigns you can do just that – while you stand in line to buy groceries. Reigns, an Apple Editor's Choice, is a card-based adventure game with an clever interaction model. Touch Arcade and Pocket Gamer liken Reigns to Tinder, which I get, but it’s also a little unfair because it ignores the depth and personality of the game that underlies the Tinder-like mechanics.

As king, you are presented with a series of decisions in the form of cards that are brought to you by advisors and other characters. Each decision has only two options that you choose between by swiping left or right – hence the comparison to Tinder. But there’s much more to Reigns than just flicking cards. Every choice you make has consequences, some of which affect future generations, and it's not unusual for a decision to spin out of control quickly ending in your death.

Each choice you make also has an impact on the strength of the church, your subjects, the army, and your finances, which are tracked at the top of the screen. As you play, you can swipe cards part way to the left or right to get a hint of which metrics will be affected by your choices. To survive, you must carefully balance each variable. Allow one category to get too high or too low and your reign will end badly.

All reigns end eventually, but each time one does, you are reborn as a new king and given a series of goals like “Lose yourself in the dungeon,’ ‘Meet the devil,’ or ‘Try the blue one.’ Meeting goals unlocks cards and new aspects of the game keeping it fresh. There are also mini-games like dice and dueling scattered throughout Reigns.

Reigns is perfect for mobile, though it is also available on the Mac via Steam. Swiping left and right to make decisions about your kingdom is quick and easy wherever you are. The combination of the number of cards, consequences that span generations, and need to balance multiple statistics adds an interesting level of strategy. But above all else, what has endeared Reigns to me most is that the artwork and questions are imbued with a sense of humor that gives Reigns a unique personality unlike any iOS game I have played recently.

Reigns is available on the App Store for $2.99.

Pocket Casts 6

When it comes to podcast apps on iOS, we are really spoiled for choice. There are many options, but I would say that there are four podcast apps in particular that rise above the rest; Apple's own Podcasts app, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and Castro. Narrowing that field of four to determine which is objectively the best is an almost impossible task from where I stand. Instead, which one is best will depend entirely on which app's design and feature set most closely aligns with how you want to manage and listen to podcasts.

Keeping that in mind, just over a week ago was the release of a major new version of Pocket Casts. Now on version 6 for iOS, Pocket Casts is the podcast app that has been around the longest (out of those four listed above), first launching in January 2011. It's also the one with the most cross-platform support, running on iOS (iPhone and iPad), Android, Windows Phone, and on the web.

So, what's new in Pocket Casts 6? The tl;dr version is that the user interface has been redesigned in various ways, most notably with the addition of a dark theme and "up next" queue improvements. There are new audio effects to trim silences and volume boost for those podcasts which sound too quiet. The iPad version now supports multitasking (Split View and Picture in Picture), and whilst it isn't noticeable to users, almost the entire app has been re-written in Swift.

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Game Day: Severed

Severed is a dungeon adventure game for iOS from DrinkBox Studios that originally debuted on the PS Vita and will be available later this Summer on the Wii U and 3DS. The game tells the story of a one-armed warrior named Sasha in search of her family in a strange world populated by monstrous creatures.

The move to bring Severed to iOS is a new beginning for DrinkBox Studios, which published its prior mobile titles on PS Vita. But with the Vita in decline, DrinkBox has moved on. In an interview with Engadget, the Toronto-based company announced that it is finished with the Vita. That's a shame because I love my PS Vita and DrinkBox's Guacamelee! was one of my favorite Vita games, but Sony's loss is Apple's gain.

Severed, described by its creators as an RPG-light adventure, is a visually arresting journey through a bizzare landscape. The unique artwork style will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has played Guacamelee!, while still creating an atmosphere and look of its own. Sasha, the main character, has just one weapon, a sword given to her by a mysterious figure at the outset of her quest. As you encounter enemies, you attack with slashing touch gestures reminiscent of Fruit Ninja and block counterattacks by swiping along the course of incoming blows. Early in the game you are confronted by single enemies. Things get more complicated as you advance and have to defeat multiple foes that are better at defending themselves.

But there's more to Severed than just frantic slashing. There's a strategic element too. During the course of a battle, Sasha's 'focus bar' slowly fills. Kill an opponent when Sasha's focus bar is full and you can sever its limbs. It sounds more gruesome than it actually is. Collect enough limbs and you can trade them for armor, equipment, and other upgrades. As a result, it doesn't pay to simply kill a monster as fast as possible, which adds depth to the battles.

There are two levels of play – 'casual' and 'standard.' Severed can be intense and absorbing in standard mode, which makes casual mode a nice option if you would rather play a more relaxed game, soaking in the visuals and soundtrack.

The touch-based gestures of Severed are outstanding on iOS. The game is a Universal app, so you can play it on an iPhone or iPad, but it really shines on the iPad, especially an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. Suddenly, that Apple Pencil that you may use to take notes or sketch becomes Sasha's sword. Using the Apple Pencil this way adds immeasurably to the fun.

I'll be playing Severed a lot more as I sit by the shore of Lake Michigan for a mini-vacation this weekend. Severed is expensive as iOS games go, but at less than half the price you'd pay for the PS Vita version, you get a game that fits with the iPhone and iPad hardware in a way that it can't on the Vita. Sure, the Vita has a touch surface, but it's still designed primarily for button-based games, while the large touch surfaces of iOS devices make it easier to get lost in Severed's action and story.

Severed is available on the App Store for $6.99.

Notebooks for iOS and Mac Organizes Your Research and Reference Materials

There’s a reason why there have been so many different notebook-style apps on iOS and the Mac over the years. Media-rich research projects and reference materials benefit from the familiar metaphor of a notebook as a way to organize everything in one place. The difficulty, though, is balancing organizational functionality with editing tools. Good organizational tools like search, sorting, and sync are a must, but apps that go too deep into editing features can quickly become a bloated mess. Go too light, and the editing features aren’t of much use.

Notebooks by Alfons Schmid is an iOS and Mac notebook app that has excellent organizational tools on iOS and the Mac. With solid search, sorting and sync options, your notebooks and documents are always readily available to you, which makes it a great research tool, especially on iOS. Notebooks' editing tools are a different story. Notebooks for iOS strikes a nice balance with excellent text and PDF editing tools. The more recently released Mac version of Notebooks, however, doesn’t go much beyond text editing, which is a little disappointing.

Whether Notebooks is right for you will depend on the extent to which you want to edit files stored in it and, if so, whether iOS or OS X is the dominant platform you use. People who work on iOS will love the power of Notebooks; on the Mac, Notebooks is closer to a viewer app and may not be sufficient to meet your needs.

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Game Day: Bulb Boy

Bulb Boy is a bizarre point-and-tap puzzle adventure on iOS from Kraków, Poland-based Bulbware that draws inspiration from games like Machinarium. As the name suggests, the story centers around a boy who is a lightbulb. Bulb Boy appears to be going about his business, living a quiet life with his grandfather and bulb-dog in their bulb-house, until strange things suddenly start to happen. Bulb Boy's world is beset with monsters and it's up to you, as Bulb Boy, to defeat them by collecting a series of items that help you solve puzzles.

Everything in the game is black and green like an old CRT monitor. The animation has a distinctly retro feel too. When I started Bulb Boy I immediately felt like I had stepped into a demented version of an old cartoon from the 1930s.

The mechanics are straight-forward. You explore each scene by tapping the screen. Bulb Boy moves to where you tap and examines any items in the area. The items you collect help you solve the puzzles and move on to the next stage. In addition, Bulb Boy can take off his head to illuminate dark areas and help solve puzzles. As the game progresses it continually introduces new challenges that keep the game fresh.

Bulb Boy, which has won more awards than I can list here, is as creepy and weird as it sounds. Originally released for PCs on Steam, the game translates well to iOS's touch interface. I played on my iPhone 6s Plus and iPad Pro and greatly preferred the experience on the iPad, where the artwork and soundtrack could really shine.

Bulb Boy is as much about exploring and enjoying its strange world as it is about the puzzles. The lead character is so charming that I very quickly found myself wanting to help him out of all the tight spots he finds himself in, which makes for an absorbing game. For the most part, the puzzles are challenging without being too hard, but if you do get stuck, Bulb Boy provides hints in the form of pictographic thought-bubbles that appear above Bulb Boy's head. There are also walk-throughs online.

Bulb Boy is available on the App Store for $2.99 and, although I have not tried it, it's worth noting that Bulb Boy is also available on the Mac for $9.99.