THIS WEEK'S SPONSOR:

OffScreen

Leave Your Phone, and Focus on Real Life


Posts in reviews

Game Day: Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha

Some tweet wishes do come true.

One of the first Mac games I ever played has made a comeback on the Mac App Store. Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha is a space-themed shooter that adds an exploratory twist on Asteroids-like controls. The game is a terrific riff on a classic arcade genre, but what holds the experience together and elevates it is the hand-drawn art and soundtrack.

Sketchfigher, by developer Lost Minds, was originally published in 2006 by Ambrosia Software, a Mac game publisher with roots in the early 90s that faded from the Mac gaming scene and finally went completely offline last year. That left fans with no way to download the app or activate existing licenses.

It’s been years since I played Sketchfighter, but as you can see from my tweet, I never forgot it. So, when I stumbled across a preview trailer for a reboot of the game, I was excited. As it turns out, Lost Minds was able to get the original source code for the game, update it for modern Macs, and release it on the Mac App Store.

If you played the original game as I did, part of the reboot’s fun is the nostalgia factor. Even if you’ve never played Sketchfighter, though, it’s a wonderful classic arcade experience. The game takes the sort of doodles so many students have scribbled in notebooks as teenagers and brings them to life on the same graph paper you’d find in backpacks.

Your goal is to maneuver a spaceship through a series of zones, avoiding obstacles and weaponry, collecting items, eliminating enemies, and fighting bosses. The controls are simple. The arrow keys control the direction your ship flies, and the space bar fires your weapons. That doesn’t mean your ship is easy to control, though. Both the flight physics and ship itself reminded me of Asteroids, which works well in this context. As you fly your ship, it drifts, carried by momentum towards walls, enemies, and other obstacles that can inflict damage, eventually leading to your demise. Along your route, there are also spots to refresh your health, which are a great place to visit before a big boss fight because once your health runs out, your ship explodes.

Sketchfighter features three save slots, so dying doesn’t mean starting over from scratch every time. Also, although I’ve only played in single-player mission mode, there are also two-player co-op and competitive modes.

There isn’t too much more I can say about Sketchfighter without giving away some of the surprises in later levels, but it’s worth emphasizing that the game’s relative simplicity is elevated above other straightforward arcade shooters by its nostalgia-evoking graphics and soundtrack. The music is a relatively short loop, but it’s incredibly catchy and the sort of tune that will stick in your head for days.

With so many games gone with the transition to 64-bit apps, I was happy to see Lost Minds take the time and effort to revitalize this small but fun corner of Mac gaming history. Updating older games isn’t trivial, which is why reboots like Sketchfighter are sadly the exception rather than the rule.

The Mac is lacking as a gaming platform in a lot of ways, but it’s perfect for quirky arcade-style fun like Sketchfighter. The game runs well on my 2018 Mac mini and has never sounded better than through my Harmon Kardon Soundsticks. What’s more, Sketchfighter is a terrific diversion when you’re sitting at your Mac and need a break. I hope it’s wildly successful and gets ported to the iPad eventually, too. It would be great fun to play with an iPad Pro attached to the Magic Keyboard with Trackpad.

Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha is available on the Mac App Store for $6.99.



Fontcase Simplifies Custom Font Installation on iOS and iPadOS

On Friday, The Iconfactory announced that it has collaborated with Manolo Sañudo, the developer of open-source font installation utility xFonts, on a new version of the app, which has been renamed Fontcase. The app greatly simplifies the process of installing custom fonts on iOS and iPadOS. Fontcase isn’t the first utility to do this. However, Fontcase has the advantage of being free and open-source, which should provide users confidence that it’s secure.

Security is an issue with font installers because they require a configuration profile to be installed in the Settings → General section of your iPhone or iPad. Configuration profiles can control important aspects of iOS and iPadOS that could be misused. Because Fontcase is open source, its code is publicly available for anyone to review to make sure it isn’t doing anything unexpected. However, even if you don’t review the code yourself, the mere fact that it is publicly available provides some comfort that someone else has done so.

Using Fontcase’s document browser integration to locate fonts to install.

Using Fontcase’s document browser integration to locate fonts to install.

You’ll spend most of your time in Fontcase’s Fonts tab, which is controlled by two buttons marked Import and Install. Import takes advantage of the document browser feature of iOS and iPadOS, opening the familiar Files UI for navigating to a folder in iCloud Drive, Dropbox, or another file provider where you have fonts saved that you want to install. Select the fonts you want and tap Open, and they will appear in Fontcase’s UI using the font itself to provide users with a mini-preview.

Tap any font you’ve imported to see metadata and a preview.

Tap any font you’ve imported to see metadata and a preview.

Tap on a font imported into Fontcase, and the app displays metadata about it along with a full preview of the font. On the iPhone, this makes sense, but it’s too bad that on the iPad, Fontcase doesn’t make use of a list and detailed view layout for the preview of fonts. Instead, there’s a vast empty space on the right-hand side of the iPad UI.

Fontcase’s installation workflow.

Fontcase’s installation workflow.

Once you’re ready to install your collection of fonts, tap Install, which bundles all of the fonts you’ve imported into a single configuration profile. Tap Download Fonts, and the profile is saved and ready for installation in Settings → General → Profiles. Tap on the Fontcase Installation profile in the Downloaded Profile section and follow the prompts to finalize the installation. Once installed, the fonts will be available alongside the system-provided fonts in apps like The Iconfactory’s Tot, as well as many other apps that support custom fonts, including Apple’s own Pages.

It’s nice to see The Iconfactory contributing to an open-source project to provide a safe and simple way to add fonts to iOS and iPadOS. If you’re looking for good writing fonts to try with the app, I like iA Writer’s Duo font and Courier Prime, both of which are available to download for free.

Fontcase is available as a free download on the App Store and is compatible with the iPhone and iPad.


Adobe Photoshop Camera Brings Real-Time Filters and AI to Photo Sharing

Adobe has released a filter-focused camera app called Photoshop Camera that relies heavily on the company’s Sensei AI technology to make it easy to take photos, apply filters, and share them. The app, which was announced last November and has been in beta ever since then, is free with an In-App Purchase available to unlock 20GB of Creative Cloud storage.

Sensei is Adobe’s AI technology that the company has been weaving into more and more of its desktop and mobile apps. Like other companies adding AI to image processing, Sensei touches a wide variety of features in different apps, assisting with everything from aspects of the photo editing process like object selection to settings like exposure. With Photoshop Camera, Sensei plays an even more pronounced role, automating the process of mobile photography and applying filters to create an experience that balances ease-of-use with image quality.

As Adobe explained last fall:

With Photoshop Camera you can capture, edit, and share stunning photos and moments – both natural and creative – using real-time Photoshop-grade magic right from the viewfinder, leaving you free to focus on storytelling with powerful tools and effects. Leveraging Adobe Sensei intelligence, the app can instantly recognize the subject in your photo and provide recommendations, and automatically apply sophisticated, unique features at the moment of capture (i.e. portraits, landscapes, selfies, food shots), while always preserving an original shot. It also understands the technical content (i.e. dynamic range, tonality, scene-type, face regions) of the photo and automatically applies complex adjustments.

Photoshop Camera comes with several pre-installed filters, which Adobe calls Lenses, with additional ones available for download from the app’s built-in Lens Library. Some Lenses have been designed by Adobe, while others have been created by third-party photographers, and even musician Billie Eilish. There are a wide variety of Lenses available at launch, and the company says new ones will be released weekly going forward. The Lens Library also lets users manage their collection of Lenses, adding new ones, deleting others, and reordering them to customize the app to your tastes.

Read more


GoodLinks Review: A Flexible Read-it-Later Link Manager Packed with Automation Options

The original crop of read-it-later apps that date back to the earliest days of the App Store were based on web services maintained by the developers of those apps. Apps like Instapaper and Pocket, the two biggest names in the space, have always been backed by web services that integrate tightly with native apps across Apple’s platforms. It’s a model that worked, and although those apps have continued to evolve and change with regular updates over the years, new entrants into the category were few and far between in this once hyper-competitive category – until now.

Thanks to relatively recent changes to Apple’s OSes, a new generation of read-it-later apps are emerging. They no longer need to run their own web services and are leveraging the latest OS technologies in new and interesting ways. One of the very best is GoodLinks, a new read-it-later app and link manager released today by Ngoc Luu, the developer of the well-known text editor 1Writer.

GoodLinks' main UI.

GoodLinks’ main UI.

Since returning to Reeder for the RSS feeds I follow, I’ve been using its read-it-later service, which is terrific. We’ve also covered apps like Abyss and Readit in MacStories Weekly. Like GoodLinks, those apps use iCloud sync to keep articles you save synced across all the devices they support instead of using a developer-maintained web service. That’s a relatively new development for these sorts of apps, but the difference in this new generation of read-it-later apps runs deeper. New features of the OSes on which GoodLinks runs have breathed new life into the category, and its developer has taken advantage of these features to provide new utility to users.

Having settled into a comfortable Reeder workflow, I didn’t expect the way I manage links to be upended anytime soon. However, that’s exactly what has happened since I began using GoodLinks. What grabbed me is a versatility that stems from the fluidity of getting links into the app, managing them, and getting them out again. There’s built-in flexibility to GoodLinks that allows it to adapt exceedingly well to a wide variety of use cases. As with any 1.0 app, there’s room for improvement, but my wishes for GoodLinks are just that: wishes borne of enthusiasm for a terrific app that has quickly found its way into my daily workflow. Let’s dig into the details.

Read more


Pastel Review: A Modern Color Utility for iPad and iPhone

Five years into the iPad Pro era, iPad software is finally starting to catch up to its excellent hardware. Thanks to a mix of software enhancements, business model trends, and key developer tools such as Mac Catalyst, both iPadOS and its third-party app ecosystem have become more accommodating to professional uses.

Entering that context is Pastel, the latest app from developer Steve Troughton-Smith. Pastel is a color palette utility for the iPad and iPhone that has a Catalyst-powered Mac version coming soon. The app offers a dedicated home for storing collections of color palettes and individual colors you want to save for reference. It also takes advantage of technologies like drag and drop and context menus to perfectly complement other creative tools on your device.

Read more


Sofa Debuts Modern iPad App, Rich Themes Experience, and More

I suspect I’m not alone in saying that 2020 has been a big year for personal media consumption. The absence of normal social events has meant more time for reading, watching shows and movies, and other forms of relaxation.

At the end of last year I wrote about how I was using Sofa, a media list app, to track the TV and films I’d watched in 2019. I’ve used the same approach throughout 2020, and it continues to work well for me. The only change is that I’ve been testing a big update to Sofa for the last few weeks that’s available now. Previously exclusive to the iPhone, Sofa now offers a rich iPad experience complete with Split View, Slide Over, and multiwindowing, keyboard shortcuts, and mouse and trackpad support. Additionally, today’s update adds a robust theming system to the app and seamless iCloud syncing. It’s a strong step forward for the app, making it more versatile than ever before.

Read more


Keep Review: The Read-Later App I’ve Been Looking For

After years of happily using Safari’s Reading List and Apple News’ Saved Stories for all my read-later needs, recently I found myself facing a conundrum: there were too many articles saved in each place, and thus I needed a categorization system that neither Safari nor News provide. This problem is of course partly my fault, since I’m clearly not adequately working through my reading queue.1 But I’m not at all willing to nuke these interesting stories and start fresh with zero saved links. Thus, I’ve been on the hunt for a read-later app that better meets my new needs.

If there’s one lesson this journey has taught me, it’s that read-later apps are just like task managers and email clients: there’s no perfect one-size-fits-all approach. Developers and users all have their own ideas about how such an app should best function, so there’s no perfect option out there. After a long search, however, I’ve found the app that comes as close to ideal for me as possible: Keep by developer Michael Zsigmond, which is available for iPhone, iPad, and also offers a web client.

Read more


Spend Stack Adds Apple Card Import, Recurring Cost Tracking, Per-List Currencies, iPad Improvements, and More

I’m not normally a fan of finance apps. They tend to be more work than I want to bother with, and are often riddled with poor design choices that make them a pain to use. Not so Spend Stack, the finance-centered list app that I first wrote about last fall. Spend Stack looks and feels thoroughly modern, with an elegant design and deep support for modern technologies like iPad multiwindow, iCloud collaboration, and more. It enables creating lists of items that have monetary values and having the sum cost or value automatically calculated, making it ideal for budgets, shopping lists, vacation planning, and more.

Version 1.2 of Spend Stack recently debuted, introducing a strong set of new features and enhancements: Apple Card monthly statements can now be imported seamlessly, working with multiple currencies and recurring costs is now possible, the iPad app has gotten even better, and there are some nice new design touches. Let’s dive in.

Read more