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App Journal, Episode 6: NotifyMe, Whale Trail, Twittelator Neue, BBC iPlayer

App Journal is a new series aimed at showcasing apps we have enjoyed using on our iPhones, iPads, and Macs, but decided not to feature in a standalone, lengthy review here on MacStories. App Journal is a mix of classic reviews, weekly app recommendations, and a diary of our experiences with apps that still deserve a proper mention.

With iOS 5, iCloud and the iPhone 4S now out in the wild and available for all users, App Journal gets back to its regular programming schedule and we couldn’t be more excited to start trying new apps that fully take advantage of the new features offered by iOS 5 and iCloud services. This week, Graham takes a look at the global version of iPlayer, while I try to set a personal record in Whale Trail (thanks to our friends at The Next Web for writing about this gem), experiment with a new Twitter client for iPhone, and enjoy the comfort of a quick-entry panel in a Mac app that creates reminders, but it’s not Apple’s Reminders.

We think this week’s selection is pretty great. Stay tuned for more App Journals in the next weeks.

NotifyMe

With iOS 5, Apple introduced Reminders, and as I wrote in my overview of the app, I’m glad they did. Reminders makes iOS as a platform more efficient and productive, allowing users to forget about having to purchase a standalone to-do app because now the functionality is integrated right into the system. But as I also wrote, it’s not like Reminders aims to replace more complex solutions like OmniFocus, Todo or Things: Reminders is very simple and aimed at people who don’t need advanced personalization of their to-do lists or project management features. Reminders targets the average iOS user that has always wished his iPhone would let him create reminders for when he gets home or needs to take out the trash. With Siri integration, Reminders gets even more accessible thanks to voice-based input.

There will always be room for third-party apps in the iOS ecosystem, and even if Apple “borrows” basic functionalities from third-party software every once in a while, developers always find a way to give their apps a reason to exist and prosper. Just take a look at Instapaper, Grazing, or Fantastical.

NotifyMe, a set of apps by PoweryBase, is an interesting and powerful alternative to Reminders for those who wish they could do a bit more with their to-dos and, more importantly, have them synced back to a native Mac app. NotifyMe is very similar to Reminders in its underlying concept: you create to-dos and they’re synced to the cloud. Unlike Reminders, NotifyMe doesn’t use iCloud – instead the developers have built an infrastructure called the NotifyMe Cloud that keeps iPhone, iPad and Mac clients always up-to-date with a free account you can create at notifymecloud.com. Syncing is free, with no subscriptions – but you’ll have to buy the iOS apps separately on the App Store (no universal version yet) and if you want to have to-dos on your desktop as well, NotifyMe for OS X on the Mac App Store.

Where NotifyMe really stands out is customization. You can assign reminders to specific categories and create new ones from scratch choosing a custom icon. On iOS, you can pick a melody for NotifyMe alerts, set a [Category] prefix in the notifications that you’ll get from the app, and choose whether or not you want the app to default an “auto-done” state for non-repeating reminders. Furthermore, you can set auto-snooze, customize the app’s badge type to overdue+today or overdue+all upcoming, and select a category for shared reminders added by your friends. NotifyMe makes it easy to curate a personal list of friends and family members that you want to share reminders with – just head over the Sharing & Friends tab in the iOS app, and send a request via email to another NotifyMe user. Friends can create shared reminders, but they can’t browse your whole account and see the reminders you’ve chosen not to share.

Both on the Mac and iOS, the app’s interface is easy to use and focused on lists and the “New reminder” button. Lists include your upcoming reminders, completed and recent ones, as well as your categories and Sharing. On the iPad and Mac you’ll see categories (and to-dos assigned to them) right in the left sidebar, whereas on the iPhone you’ll have to tap on Categories first to navigate to another view. NotifyMe also comes with a web app for those who don’t own a Mac, which you can find at webapp.notifymecloud.com.

NotifyMe’s reminders don’t have location features, but they have some other options worth mentioning. You can set repeating reminders and pre-alerts; pick a category, set auto-snooze, sharing and melody on a reminder basis and attach notes. The biggest advantage of NotifyMe over similar to-do software for iOS is that its Mac app enables you to create reminders with an OmniFocus-like quick entry panel, which can be assigned a systemwide keyboard shortcut and optionally expanded to reveal more settings as you write. The quick entry panel is possibly the single best feature of the Mac app that justifies the (steep) price if you’re going to create many reminders on your desktop, and have them always available through the cloud.

NotifyMe works reliably, and in some areas it offers more customization options than Apple’s Reminders for iOS 5. The full set of apps (iPhone, iPad, Mac) doesn’t exactly come cheap, so consider the purchase if you’re really going to use the Mac’s quick entry functionality and iPad client a lot.

Whale Trail

Whale Trail is a new game by development studio ustwo, and quite possibly one of my favorite iOS games of all time (alongside the recently released Mage Gauntlet, which is a completely different genre). There are plenty of iPhone and iPad games on the App Store, and several on my Games folder; very few of them, however, manage to capture the essence of mobile gaming – that is, at least for me, instant play and deep user engagement. Whale Trail gets both factors right with its amazingly colorful and catchy graphics and soundtrack and simple game mechanics that allow you to pick up the game and play in seconds, but stick with its for hours if you’re willing to break your record. Like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride, it’s one of those games I keep coming back to every day.

In this game, you control a flying whale that has to avoid black clouds and collect “bubbles” to fuel the whale trail, which enables the character to fly but it’s constantly running out – so you’ll have to get bubbles along the way otherwise you’ll stop flying and it’ll be game over. Very simple: you fly thanks to the whale trail, but there’s no trail unless you keep getting bubbles. Like Tiny Wings, the controls are extremely intuitive: tap and hold to swoop up, release to dive down. Unlike Tiny Wings though, which I found frustrating after some time because of its intrinsic need to hurry if you want to survive, Whale Trail feels more “relaxed” and user-friendly to me – could be because of its nice psychedelic graphics or joyful soundtrack. Thing is, I’m enjoying Whale Trail more than Tiny Wings (both games belong to the so-called “flyer” genre) and I’m reading similar reactions on Facebook and Twitter. The game is addictive, always leading you towards a new record to set and it’s even got a nice assortment of achievements to unlock.

Most of all, the joy of playing Whale Trail can’t really be described in an article or demo video, so go get the (universal) app on the App Store at $0.99.

Twittelator Neue

It’s not every day that I try a new Twitter client on my iPhone (I’ma big fan of Tweetbot and Twitterrific, both great apps with Tweet Marker support), but I was impressed by the screenshots of Twittelator Neue and, considering the original Twittelator is the first Twitter client I ever used, I decided to give this “neue” version a try.

Twittelator Neue has been, indeed, a very nice surprise on my iPhone, as I wasn’t expecting this kind of polish and attention to detail from the makers of Twittelator, which isn’t exactly the best looking app on the iPhone. Neue looks great on the Retina Display, it’s got a clean design and beautiful animations that are a pleasure to look at thanks to the iPhone 4S’ speedier A5 processor that makes everything smooth and responsive. Twittelator Neue has got a lot of clever implementations of existing Twitter features that most third-party clients have settled on using in a certain way. In this regard, Neue feels like a breath of fresh air in a software landscape that’s long been constrained by “rules” set by the original Tweetie and that only saw a few exceptions like the aforementioned Tweetbot and Twitterrific as long as innovation goes.

Twittelator Neue puts great emphasis on clean design, animations and gestures. The app supports multiple accounts (unfortunately, no iOS 5 Twitter integration yet) and it enables you to tweet from more than a single account at the same time with a simple on/off interface for the accounts you’ve configured. You can add “timeline shortcuts” in Neue, meaning you’ll be able to easily access someone’s tweets or a list with just a swipe. Gestures are, in fact, the main interaction method of the app, as swiping horizontally on screen quickly switches between DMs, mentions, search, your timeline and the shortcuts you may have added. It’s incredibly intuitive, fun, and fast. If you don’t feel like swiping, a tab bar overlay at the bottom lets you tap to switch between sections. This tab bar automatically appears when you reach the top of the screen, and can be dismissed with a gesture. When it’s hidden, it’s got the same handle icon of Notification Center to bring it back up.

Even more fun is discovering all the little details that make Twittelator Neue a fresh experience for iPhone users. Website previews are embedded below tweets that contain a link, and conversations are previewed in the same way; photos are inserted inline, and tapping on them starts a beautiful pop-up animation that brings the full-size image in the foreground; tap and hold a tweet, and an action bar will appear revealing options to reply, retweet, star or read later (OmniFocus is supported alongside Instapaper and Read It Later). Tweets can be copied, translated, emailed, or posted to Facebook. When you reply to a user, the original tweet is beautifully embedded below the compose box so you’ll be able to see what you’re replying to in case you’ve forgotten. It looks fantastic.

There are many other nice touches in this app (the custom pull-to-refresh with integrated search is an example), and I’ll leave you with some screenshots and promo video so you can see by yourself. But there’s no doubt Andrew Stone did the right thing in completely redesigning Twittelator.

I look forward to trying an iPad version of Twittelator Neue with iPad support and Tweet Marker sync. In the meantime, this great iPhone app is available at $1.99 on the App Store.

Graham: BBC iPlayer (Global)

Earlier this year the BBC revealed that it was looking to roll out their iPlayer service internationally. Within the UK, iPlayer is the BBC’s catch-up service for television shows that have aired on the BBC network, allowing viewers to catch-up and watch previous episodes online and on a variety of devices. The BBC chose to differentiate the international version in a few ways, the most noticeable is that it is not a catch-up service and doesn’t feature much recently aired content — this is mainly due to licensing agreements with various broadcasters internationally who have exclusive rights over the content. The second is that it isn’t free: whilst the app is free and comes with some free content, to get the full catalogue of content you will have to pay a monthly fee which varies country-by-country but is roughly US $8.

The focus of the international version of iPlayer is the strong back catalogue and archives of BBC shows and whilst the list of available shows does change from country-to-country due to licensing agreements, I found the amount and quality of content great. There’s everything from classic comedies such as Fawlty Towers and Blackadder to the excellent Doctor Who (a number of series from both the classic and reboot years), to the entertaining spy drama of Spooks and of course, Top Gear. There are also documentaries, music features, lifestyle shows, family shows and nature specials amongst the typical comedy and drama genres.

For reference I am located in Australia, depending on your region, some of the aforementioned titles may not be available due to licensing agreements.

Because all of the shows are streamed as soon as you start playing them, one question I had was how good the quality of the video would be. I certainly wasn’t disappointed as it far exceeds the quality that I am accustomed to from many of the similar video streaming services that Australian TV channels provide. The one downside to this, however, is that you will be downloading quite a hefty amount for each episode, my rough estimations are that it’s about 600 MB for a 50 minute episode — but no actual sizes are given in the app. Another positive is that despite the large files, I’ve yet to experience the app pause a video while it buffers, which again differs from my experience with other streaming video services.

Beyond the content, which is what really determines whether the app and subscription is worth it, it should be noted that the app itself is pretty great. You navigate through shows using a horizontal scrolling view and can change between viewing by genre, ‘just in’, most popular, featured or list them all from A-Z. There is little unnecessary UI chrome and the focus is on the content, all of which is enclosed inside a really nice, sleek and modern design. The app allows you to download episodes in advance which is great if you want to load up your iPad with a number of shows before you go somewhere without internet access — although you can also stream over 3G, but you may run into problems with 3G speeds and download caps.

One final feature to touch upon is the inclusion of AirPlay support which was added just a few days ago. If you aren’t familiar with AirPlay, it allows you to stream music, video and even your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S screen (on iOS 5 with AirPlay Mirroring) to an Apple TV connected up to a television. With the inclusion of AirPlay support in the iPlayer app, you can now stream any of the available shows in the app to your TV. I haven’t personally tried this as I don’t own an Apple TV, but it should work just as well as any other app that supports AirPlay.

BBC iPlayer (Global) is available for the iPad on the App Store with the option of a monthly or yearly subscription in the following countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlends, Portugal, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Australia.

To read more App Journals, take a look here.

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