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Concepts for iPad: An Adaptable Infinite Canvas to Suit Anyone’s Needs

Concepts, an iOS drawing app featuring an infinite canvas, sat untouched on my iPad forever. I’d seen some buzz about it online, and the idea of an infinite canvas intrigued me. I’m not much of an artist though, so I was unsure how I’d use the app.

What broke my mental logjam was the new Apple Pencil. Attached to the side of my iPad Pro, the Pencil is always within easy reach, so I use it more now than ever. That, in turn, set me on a quest for the best apps that support the Pencil.

I started with familiar apps like GoodNotes, which I reviewed last week, and Linea Sketch from The Iconfactory, two of my long-time favorite apps. I’d used both apps for a long time, but with the new Apple Pencil, I found myself using them more often. Especially with Linea Sketch, I found myself using the Pencil to map out articles and other projects in a loose, free-form style consisting of lots of handwritten notes embellished with splashes of color and doodles. Free from the constraint of orderly lines of text, ideas evolved more organically, which I’ve found works exceptionally well during the early stages of a project.

What led me to dive into Concepts though was a single wall I hit with Linea and GoodNotes. The canvas of both apps is constrained to a single digital sheet of paper. That’s not a deal-breaker in some circumstances, but for more sprawling projects and loosely-defined brainstorming, it’s problematic. The one-page-at-a-time interface of both apps also made it hard to annotate more than a single screenshot per page without running out of space.

Concepts affords me an infinite canvas free of space constraints. It also offers a level of control over the tools I use that fits well with how I approach text editors. Like many writers I know, I like to adjust every detail of how my words appear onscreen, including the typeface I use, its size, the line height, and column width. As I’ll explain in more detail below, Concepts allows a similar level of control over its tools, which I love. I may not take advantage of those tools or their customizations to the same extent as an artist might, but I appreciate their power nonetheless.

So, I spent time over the holidays sketching out plans for 2019 in Concepts. The more I used the app, the more I became convinced that it merited a place in my iPad workflow. Still, I wondered if a review from my non-artist’s perspective made sense for an app so focused on drawing. What finally convinced me to write the review was the interview Federico and I did with Yarrow Cheney that we released on AppStories today.

Cheney co-directed The Grinch and The Secret Life of Pets, was the production designer for the Despicable Me movies and The Lorax, and has been involved in many other animated feature films since the 90s. He’s a fantastic artist and uses Concepts to create the concept art for the films on which he’s worked.

What struck me most about our conversation though was Cheney’s insight that he uses the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil and Concepts because the combination reduces the distance between the idea in his head and recording it onscreen. That allows him to iterate more quickly and evolve ideas organically in an ever-expanding canvas from which he then pulls the best ideas.

Concept art from The Grinch posted by Yarrow Cheney (instagram.com/yarrowcheney) on Instagram.

Concept art from The Grinch posted by Yarrow Cheney (instagram.com/yarrowcheney) on Instagram.

Listening to Cheney’s explanation, I realized that the primary value of an app like Concepts lies in helping users record and refine their ideas. Whether your ideas result in something like Cheney’s whimsical concept art for The Grinch or my messy soup of notes, screenshots, and highlighting, the core utility of Concepts, which is right there in its name, is the way it facilitates the exploration of ideas. That's an important distinction that makes Concepts an appropriate choice for iPad users regardless of whether you're an artist.

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GoodNotes 5: The MacStories Review

I spend a lot of time at a keyboard. The obvious advantage of a keyboard is speed. When I'm in a groove, nothing beats typing into a text editor at my Mac or iPad Pro for quickly recording thoughts and ideas, so they aren't forgotten.

Moving fast is not nearly as important when it comes time to refine those ideas into something coherent. Slowing down, switching tools and contexts, and working in different environments all help to bring order to disparate thoughts. The same holds for planning something new, whether it's the next big article or organizing my thoughts on some other project.

It's in situations like these when I grab my iPad Pro and open GoodNotes. The switch from the indirect process of typing into a text editor to working directly on the iPad's screen with the Apple Pencil enables a different perspective that helps me refine ideas in a way that typing doesn't.

With version 5, the GoodNotes team has taken my favorite iOS note-taking app and refined every aspect of the experience. The update retains the simplicity of the app's design but does a better job surfacing existing functionality and extending other features. The result is a more flexible, powerful app that plays to its existing strengths – which current users will appreciate – but should also appeal to a broader audience than ever.

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Steredenn: Binary Stars Debuts on iOS

French indie game studio Pixelnest debuted Steredenn: Binary Stars on iOS today. The update is a major expansion of the original version of Steredenn that I reviewed over a year and a half ago. Everything I loved about the original game that made it special and an instant classic is present in Binary Stars plus a whole lot more.

Pixelnest has added more ships. Each has unique strengths and weaknesses and a special ability that’s triggered by tapping the top right corner of the screen. That’s a new addition to the game’s control scheme, but it fits naturally with the game’s existing controls making the new abilities easy to pick up even if you are used to the old control scheme.

The new ships aren’t all immediately available though. Instead, they, along with bosses, weapons, and other unique elements are unlocked as you progress through the game adding a sense of progress and incentive to come back and play more.

There are loads of other additions too including new weapons, ship upgrades, and bosses. Like the original, the game's stages are mostly procedurally generated. As in the past that keeps the game feeling fresh throughout no matter how often you're defeated. However, the addition of so many new game elements makes Binary Stars a much deeper game than the original and one that’s sure to grab players’ attention for extended periods.

Binary Stars also features a new unlockable mode called Boss Rush. It’s a weekly challenge similar to the Daily Run that pits players against a variety of bosses and tracks their success on a special leaderboard.

Pixelnest has announced that the studio is being disbanded but that the team will continue to support Steredenn. It’s shame to see Pixelnest wind down, but they leave behind an incredible legacy in Steredenn, which launched to wide critical acclaim on consoles, desktops, and iOS and has gained a loyal following.

If you haven’t tried Steredenn before, now is a great time to jump in because Binary Stars has taken everything that is great about the original game and polished it into an incredibly fun, intense gaming experience that’s ideally suited for mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad. There's so much new content to explore that players of the original version that haven't picked up the game in a while should dig in again too.

Steredenn: Binary Stars is available on the App Store a free update to existing players of Steredenn and $3.99 for newcomers.


AutoSleep 6: Effortless Sleep Tracking More Accessible Than Ever

If you've followed MacStories for long, you probably already know that AutoSleep is one of our favorite sleep tracking apps on iOS. The app stands out for offering a frictionless, effort-free experience. Where other sleep trackers may require you to start and stop sleep tracking manually, AutoSleep takes the burden of remembering those tedious tasks off your plate. If you wear an Apple Watch to sleep, the app will automatically detect your sleep patterns even without a separate Watch app installed. If you don't have a Watch, or simply don't wear it to bed, the app will track your sleep through other methods. Whatever your habits are, AutoSleep has you covered.

Today marks the debut of AutoSleep's latest major iteration: version 6.0, which introduces new wellness features, refined graphs and color schemes, sleep hygiene trends, Siri shortcuts, an improved Watch app, and more. It's an extensive update that simplifies some aspects of the app while branching out into fresh, innovative areas of health tracking.

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Launch Center Pro 3.0 Review: Universal Version, New Business Model, NFC Triggers, and More

Launch Center Pro, Contrast's popular launcher for iPhone and iPad, has been updated to version 3.0. It may be hard to believe, but Launch Center Pro 2.0 came out five years ago (in 2013), before Workflow, when Pythonista, Editorial, and Drafts were the only other apps pushing forward the idea of iOS automation thanks to URL schemes and x-callback-url.

The iOS automation landscape is vastly different five years later. While Apple still hasn't shipped a native automation framework for inter-app communication and URL schemes are still the only way to let apps exchange data with one another in an automated fashion, the evolution of Workflow into the Shortcuts app now provides users with an easier, more integrated solution to craft complex workflows. Not to mention how, thanks to its widget, 'Open URL' action, and ability to add custom launchers to the home screen, Shortcuts alone can supplant much of the functionality the likes of Launch Center Pro and Launcher have become well known for. Apple may not necessarily think about the Shortcuts app as "iOS automation" (they never used this expression in public), but it's undeniable that Workflow (then) and Shortcuts (now) are a superior, more powerful alternative to perform actions that were previously exclusive to Launch Center Pro.

For this reason, I believe it's best to think of Launch Center Pro in 2018 as a companion to Shortcuts – a more intuitive, perhaps simplified, versatile front-end to launch actions and apps in different ways, using triggers that aren't supported by Apple and which can complement Shortcuts rather than replace it. And with version 3.0 released today, Contrast is embracing this new role of Launch Center Pro as well, doubling down on what makes it unique compared to Shortcuts, and expanding the app's launcher capabilities in a handful of interesting ways.

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Darkroom 4.0: The MacStories Review

With version 4.0 released today, Darkroom has emerged as a photo editing force to be reckoned with on iOS. The highlight of the release is a brand-new iPad app, which is the version I’ll focus on in this review. I ran into a couple of bugs and would like to see Darkroom push its photo management and a few other tools even further in the future. However, the app’s combination of thoughtful design and platform-aware functionality together enable Darkroom to scale its full suite of tools gracefully from iPhone to iPad, which makes it an excellent choice for mobile photo editing.

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Game Day: Tropico for iPad

Tropico is a franchise that’s been around since 2001, but today marks its first time on an iOS device courtesy of Feral Interactive. Ruling a banana republic in the Caribbean as El Presidente is a natural fit for the iPad’s touch interface. Whether you’re navigating around your island nation or building out its infrastructure, touch makes the interaction with the game’s environment feel natural and tactile in a way that pointing and clicking with a mouse or trackpad can’t. Add a steady pace of challenges to overcome as a leader, and the results are terrific.

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CARROT Weather Adds New Data Sources, Including Netatmo Weather Stations

One of the nerdy features of CARROT Weather I love is its support for personal weather stations as a data source. Not long ago, Federico explained on AppStories that the weather station down the street from him had shut down, so he could no longer use it as a source in CARROT. I suggested he get a Netatmo Personal Weather Station and connect it to Weather Underground’s network of stations, but at about the same time Weather Underground ended its support for the Netatmo device, which left us both without a hyper-local weather source. It wasn’t a huge deal, but there’s something fun about knowing that the temperature you’re seeing in CARROT is the precise temperature outside your window and not some weather station that may be miles away from your home.

With today’s update, CARROT has stepped in with direct support for the Netatmo weather station as well as other new data sources. For the Netatmo device, all you need to do is sign in using the same login you use for Netatmo’s dedicated app, and as long as you’re within two miles of your home, CARROT will include the data collected by the Netatmo device.

Dark Sky is the default data source for CARROT, but users have three other options. The first is The Weather Channel, which provides the most extended-range forecast (data covering the next 360 hours and 15 days), is available worldwide, and can access personal weather stations connected to the Weather Underground network. CARROT has also added AccuWeather and Aeris Weather as data sources. The Aeris Weather option includes PWSweather.com personal weather station data. Users have the option of including Dark Sky's short-term precipitation in CARROT even if The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, or Aeris Weather is their data source.

Personal weather stations connected to the Weather Underground system and PWSweather.com can be selected from a map allowing you to pick one closest to where you live. Other than the personal weather station access through the Weather Channel’s API though, Weather Underground data, which was previously a data source option in CARROT, has been removed because IBM, which owns Weather Underground, has discontinued its API.

CARROT Weather’s update includes a host of other smaller additions too:

  • Air quality index and pollen data are available in the current weather view if you use The Weather Channel or AccuWeather as sources
  • There are six new secret locations to discover
  • The location screen has a new ‘Recent Searches’ section, from which you can add previous searches to your saved locations by tapping the star icon next to them.

I’m glad Brian Mueller has expanded the data source options for CARROT Weather. The best source varies depending on where you are, and with more sources, CARROT should be a better option for more users going forward. I especially like the personal weather station integration. Whether you have a weather sensor yourself or want to piggy-back on another publicly-available station nearby, they’re an excellent way to track hyper-local conditions.

CARROT Weather is available as a free update to existing users on the App Store.


Things 3.8 Brings Dark Modes to the iOS Task Manager

This fall when macOS Mojave introduced a systemwide dark mode feature, Things added support for the new mode in version 3.7. The iPhone and iPad versions of the app, however, were left out. A lack of feature parity across platforms is always unfortunate, but that was especially true this time around because our John Voorhees  highlighted Things as having his single favorite dark mode implementation.

There's good news though: we didn't have to wait long for Things’ dark mode to make its way to iOS. Launching today in version 3.8, Things has added two different dark modes on both iPhone and iPad, one of which is suited particularly well to OLED iPhones.

Accessible via a new Appearance screen in Things’ Settings, there are now options for Light, Dark, and Black modes for the task manager. The former is the default appearance of the app we’re all well acquainted with, while the latter two are brand new. Both alternate appearances employ blue as the app’s accent color, with the main difference being the background color. Dark mode uses a nice shade of gray, while Black mode employs an OLED-optimized true black.

Each of Things’ appearance options can be set manually, or there's an option to have the app switch modes automatically depending on your display's brightness. Once you activate this toggle, you'll see an option to choose between Dark and Black options for automatic switching, as well as a brightness threshold at which Things will change its appearance. The app’s use of display brightness to change modes should work well for users who have iOS’ Auto-Brightness feature activated, but I wish there was an automatic switching function for those who, like me, have that turned off.

Things 3.8 doesn't introduce any other new features, but adding two beautiful dark modes is enough to make this a noteworthy release. Cultured Code has a strong reputation for thoughtful design, and its dark modes are a standout example on iOS.

Things 3.8 is available on iPhone and iPad.