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Game Day: Holedown

It’s not often that a game grabs me and won’t let go the way Holedown has. Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop. I have the iOS 12 Screen Time reports to prove it. Even when I’d burned through all of the game’s levels reaching the final endless one, I kept coming back for more. Holedown has very quickly earned a spot as one of my all-time favorite iOS games.

Like most great mobile games, Holedown is simple. The game is a little like Breakout turned upside-down with a dash of pinball added. Each level begins on the surface of a planet. The object is to bore a hole through to the planet’s core by launching balls that bounce off of obstacles that advance up the screen with each turn you take. If the obstacles reach the surface without being cleared, you have to start over and try again with a new procedurally-generated level.

The obstacles moving up the screen are reminiscent of Tetris blocks, but each has a hit count that shows how many more ball collisions are necessary to take it out. Some blocks fall if the blocks supporting them are eliminated, but others have to be cleared regardless of the surrounding blocks.

As you launch balls, they bounce off the blocks and sides of the screen. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of the precise aiming that is done by dragging your finger across the screen. When you’re ready to shoot, lift your finger and the balls go careening across the screen bouncing helter-skelter off everything in their way.

As you play, you collect crystals. Holedown is a one-time, paid-up-front game, so the only way to collect the crystals is to play the game over and over. There is no In-App Purchase. As you collect crystals, they can be exchanged for enhanced gameplay like the ability to fire more balls at the start of each turn, take more shots per level, and more.

As you play, Holedown tracks the depth of your mine, your progress towards the core of the planet, how many balls you can shoot at one time, and how many shots you have left. It’s information that serves the dual purpose of showing where you are in the level and helping you plan your next move.

When you get to the final level, called the Black Hole, there is no core and you can shoot an unlimited number of balls at the obstacles. The only goal left is to see how deep you can mine before the blocks crash to the surface. I finished the other levels of Holedown over the course of a Saturday afternoon, and though I’ve been playing the Black Hole level for over a week now, the challenge of seeing how deep I can dig and the perfectly balanced gameplay have keep me coming back over and over.

Holedown also benefits from a strong dose of quirky personality. There’s a little mascot that sits in the corner of the screen smiling and watching you play. If you tap it, the little creature responds with things like ‘eat your vegetables,’ ‘seize the means of production,’ and ‘work, work.’

The music plays a big role in Holedown’s feel too. The catchy electronic soundtrack pairs perfectly with the sound effects, both of which react to events in the game, which adds further life to the gameplay.

Holedown is a perfect example of a well-designed mobile game. Even if you’re deep into a long session, you can quit at any time and pick up where you left off later without losing any progress. Combined with the quirky, fun gameplay, it’s one of the hardest games to put down that I’ve ever played on iOS. If you haven’t tried it yet, Holedown should be at the top of your must-play-games list.

Holedown is available on the App Store for $3.99.


Serial Reader Adapts Books for the Smartphone Age

Our Internet-driven society has seen a decline in book reading, though not necessarily a decline in reading altogether. Despite book readers being less common than in past decades, we all do a fair amount of reading each day on our smartphones – reading messages from friends, or tweets, emails, Facebook posts, notifications, articles, and so on.

Personally, I've always enjoyed reading books, and I continue to read them regularly – though not as much as I'd like. However, I also read an abundance of emails, tweets, messages, and articles every day. A day may pass with me not reading a book, but that never happens with the likes of email and messages. Part of the reason my Internet-driven reading habits are more consistent than my book reading habits is that I have to read those things to do my job. But there's another reason too: email and Slack demand my attention each day via push notifications, while books do not. Add to that, emails and messages come in bite-sized quantities, whereas books are much longer, and thus more intimidating.

Serial Reader aims to fix that.

No stranger to the App Store, Serial Reader has been around for several years, but I recently gave it a try for the first time. The premise of the app is simple: it contains a collection of over 550 classic books that can be delivered to you in bite-size chunks. At a time of your choosing, Serial Reader will send a daily notification informing you that your latest issue of, say, War and Peace, is available to read. Each issue is compiled with an estimated reading time under 20 minutes, though most I've seen are around 10 minutes – very easy to digest. We all receive regular interruptions from Internet services that take 10 minutes out of our day at a time, and with Serial Reader you can plan those interruptions in a way that helps you read more books.

By offering up small helpings of a book each day, and delivering that book's latest "issue" through a notification, Serial Reader fixes key barriers to book reading. While I wish I could use it with my own collection of books, the public domain classics included in the app offer a wealth of quality options.

If you want to read more books, Serial Reader offers a clever, convenient way to do that. And there's no better time than the present to give the app a try – it just received a big update to version 3.5, with a new multi-column reading mode for iPad, curated book collections, alternate app icons, and a design refresh.

Serial Reader is available on the App Store.


Castro Adds iCloud Drive Sideloading and Chapter Playback Pre-Selection

Supertop has released another solid update to its podcast player, Castro. In today’s update, Castro adds file sideloading for Plus subscribers, significantly adding to the app’s utility as general purpose audio player. Subscribers can also pre-select the chapters of a podcast they want to play too.

For plus subscribers, the update adds a ‘Castro’ folder in iCloud Drive. Add an MP3 or AAC file into the ‘Sideloads’ folder, and it shows up in your Castro inbox (or wherever else you designate in settings) ready for playback.

Adding audio to Castro is equally simple on a Mac or iOS device. On a Mac, open the Finder and drag in the audio files you want to add. On iOS, use the Files app to add files to your Sideloads folder from any file provider like Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive.

Once added, audio files show up in your Castro Inbox by default where they can be added to your listening queue like any podcast to which you subscribe. Instead of your Inbox, you can also add sideloaded audio to the front or back of your Queue or Castro’s Archive from the app’s settings.

Sideloading opens up exciting possibilities, especially when combined with other apps. For example, you can add DRM-free audiobooks, audio from lectures or conferences recorded from YouTube or other sources using an app like Audio Hijack, or add downloaded bonus podcast episodes like the AppStories Unplugged episodes that we’ve created for Club MacStories members. Podcasters can also use sideloading as a way to listen to draft episodes before publishing them. With one straightforward feature, Castro has become a far more flexible, general-purpose audio player.

Overcast has a similar feature for subscribers, but it’s web-based and limited to 2 GB of storage. Overall, I prefer Castro’s implementation, which doesn’t require navigating to a website. Though Overcast’s 2 GB limit hasn’t been an issue for me, the lack of a cap in Castro is a definite advantage for anyone who wants access to lots of sideloaded audio.

Sideloading a draft episode of AppStories and deselecting chapters for playback.

Sideloading a draft episode of AppStories and deselecting chapters for playback.

The second feature added to Castro is what Supertop calls Chapter Pre-Selection. In Castro, if you tap on the current chapter in a podcast episode, it displays a list of all the chapters so you can skip around inside the episode. With today’s update, Castro adds checkboxes to each chapter. By default, all of the chapters are selected. If there are chapters in the list to which you don’t want to listen, tap the checkmark icon to deselect the chapter, and only the selected chapters will play.

The convenience of selecting chapters in advance is greater than I had imagined. By pre-selecting chapters, I can, for example, head out for a run or walk without having to fiddle with skipping chapters on the go, which means fewer distractions and opportunities to drop my iPhone.

Supertop continues to regularly update Castro with interesting features. If you haven’t tried Castro in a while, it’s worth another look. The app is free to download on the App Store and you can try the Plus features, including sideloading, free for one week, after which they are $2.99 every three months or $8.99 per year.


Spect: Simple Image Management on the Mac

Spect from Steven Frank is based on a single, straightforward idea: separating image navigation from the Mac’s folder hierarchy. Point the app at a folder and tell it how deep to peer into subfolders and the app quickly generates thumbnails of the images to that depth of the folder structure. If you’ve ever found yourself drilling down into folders and subfolders only to have to back out and follow another path, you’ll understand the power of Spect immediately. The app saves users from a tremendous amount of clicking around.

Just like the Finder, your image thumbnails can be resized with a slider in the lower righthand corner of the window. In the bottom lefthand corner is where you specify how deep Spect should look into your folders.

Highlight an image and hit the space bar to toggle preview mode, which fills the window with the selected image. In preview mode, there are navigation arrows in the lower lefthand corner of the window so you can advance through your images one at a time.

Previewing an image in Spect.

Previewing an image in Spect.

Spect can display a wide variety of image formats including JPG, PNG, HEIC, RAW, GIF, and PDF. It’s worth noting, however, that Spect is not a replacement for a PDF document viewer. The app is designed for images and can only display the first page of a document-based PDF.

The toolbar at the top of the window has buttons for moving images to the Trash and revealing them in the Finder that are excellent for basic organization. There are also Slideshow and Shuffle buttons in the toolbar, which are a handy way to create a quick slideshow of images from several folders at once. By default, images change every four seconds, but that can be adjusted in the app’s Preferences.

One preference I’d like to see added to Spect is a way to limit which types of image files are displayed in the app. For example, I’d like the option to exclude PDF files, which in my case, are usually documents that I don’t want to see when I’m browsing photos and screenshots. Spect includes drag and drop support for moving images from Spect to different Finder folders, but it would also be handy to be able to create new folders from inside Spect and move photos into them without switching to the Finder at all.

Spect isn’t designed to replace a photo management tool like Adobe Lightroom. Instead, its power lies in its simplicity and the speed with which you can triage a collection of images without getting lost in a complex folder structure. In the two days I’ve been using it, Spect has already helped me understand what images I have and organize them better. For example, I located Apple press photos scattered throughout multiple folders and consolidated them into one folder. I also quickly scanned and retrieved images I wanted to save from my Downloads folder and deleted the rest. If you work with images on a Mac, Spect is a utility you should definitely check out.

Spect is available on the Mac App Store for $4.99.


AeroPress Timer for iPhone, Now with Custom Recipes

One of my favorite iOS kitchen utilities, AeroPress Timer ($4.99 US), has updated to version 3 with a complete rebuild and new functionality.

AeroPress Timer is an iPhone app that steps you through the stages of coffee making with an Aerobie AeroPress. Each step, Pour, Stir, Steep, and Plunge, has its own countdown timer. Once you get into the world of AeroPress, there are a hundred different variations and precise recipes for making different types of coffee, so it's a handy guide.

The app has always had a great selection of AeroPress recipes, but the biggest, baddest new feature: you can now create and add your own recipes. You can also favorite recipes, add notes, and there's a new visual grind size guide accessible from any recipe.

This update did lose Apple Watch functionality, which is a bummer, but the developer plan to have it back soon.

AeroPress Timer is available on the App Store.


PDF Viewer Offers a Pro Pack with Advanced PDF Editing and Collaboration Tools

As Federico and I discussed on AppStories this week, PDFs are a big part of the work day for many people. There are several solid PDF apps for iOS, but one of my favorites is PDF Viewer by PSPDFKit, the maker of a PDF viewing and editing SDK that many well-known companies use to integrate PDF functionality into their apps.

One of PDF Viewer’s advantages is that it’s free. With version 3, PDF Viewer’s core functionality remains free, but it is introducing a Pro Pack that is a set of advanced features available as part of a $9.99/year or $2.99/3-month subscription.

It’s a savvy move and one that’s been well-executed. By first building a free PDF app with functionality that rivals established paid apps, PDF Viewer has made a name for itself in a crowded market. The broad feature set of the free version of PDF Viewer, which we’ve covered in the past here, here, and here makes it hard for someone to argue that the app is only useful if you pay for the In-App Purchase. That’s just not the case. If you work with PDFs every day, you’ll love the new pro features, but the app’s free version still serves more casual users as well as ever.

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Doppler Enables Pain-Free Importing of Music and Podcasts from Safari on iOS

I've been an iOS-first user for nearly three years now, and during that time there have been very few tasks that required me to pull out my old MacBook Air. One remaining holdout has been downloading music or podcast files from the web and saving them somewhere I can conveniently access them on iOS. The ideal scenario would enable importing those files into iTunes, where they get added to my iCloud Music Library – unfortunately, that remains impossible on iOS today. But the next-best option I've discovered can be found in an iPhone app called Doppler.

Doppler launched a few months ago as a music app aimed at the non-streaming market. Despite the increasing popularity of services like Apple Music and Spotify, there are still plenty of users who want greater ownership of their music library, and that's where Doppler comes in. It specializes in offline playback and custom library curation. You can import your existing iTunes purchases, or import songs or podcasts saved in the Files app, and customize metadata so your library's organized exactly as you like it.

Today in version 1.2, Doppler adds a feature I've long wanted on iOS: the ability to import files directly from Safari.

My main use cases for Doppler's new feature include downloading MP3 tracks from an artist I support on Patreon, and downloading special members-only podcasts, like AppStories Unplugged from Club MacStories. In both cases, getting the audio files from Safari into a music player, or even just a cloud storage provider, has historically been way too difficult on iOS. Last year when iOS 11 introduced the Files app, I thought this problem would finally be taken care of; surely I'd be able to use Files' share extension from Safari to save the audio tracks. Unfortunately, Safari only presents the Files extension when downloading certain file types, and audio files aren't included. And that's where Doppler comes in.

Doppler now offers an action extension that can be used in two contexts: either when an audio file is already loaded in Safari, or even just when long-pressing a link to an audio file and hitting the 'Share...' option. The action extension then pulls in the file, lets you modify track metadata, and saves it to your Doppler library. The app is billed as a music player, but this same process works well for podcasts too – just know that due to their increased track size, podcasts will take longer to import.

Doppler is still a young app, so it's missing key features that will hopefully be added in the future, such as an iPad app and iCloud sync. Its design is solid though – I like how it evokes past versions of Apple's Music app with backgrounds matching the color scheme of each album. Despite being feature-light, Doppler works well as a basic music player for your non-streaming service needs. And now, thanks to its Safari import feature, it's become a crucial utility that's staying installed on my device.

Doppler is available for iPhone on the App Store.


Fantastical 2.5 for Mac Adds Time Change Proposals, Meetup.com Support, and More

Flexibits has released an update to the Mac version of its popular calendar app Fantastical. The feature that should be useful to most users immediately is the ability to send and receive new time proposals for events. Fantastical already could send meeting invitations and acceptances, but with version 2.5, recipients of an invitation can propose a new time. The feature works with iCloud, Google, Exchange and CalDAV calendaring services, which should cover most use cases.

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