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Reeder and its companion apps: Readability vs Pocket vs Instapaper

Reeder has always been my favorite app for reading my multiple RSS feeds. Simple and elegant, it allows preloading of all your feeds so that you can read them in the subway for example.

RSS feeds are usually short summaries of blog entries, and almost all major news website has some to help follow their news stream. While some sites deliver the entire content of their articles to their RSS feeds, most only send a shortened version. Users that want to read the full story click on the link and get to their website. Of course, only if you're reading it online, which is not always my case. Also, if the article is long, you may want to save it for later. Keeping a tab open in your browser is not a great way to do that. Also, an RSS reader is a poor place to keep something for long. You usually consume what's in there pretty quickly. The flow is constant and uninterrupted.

So, for articles I want to read whole, I'm sending my content to one of three apps: Instapaper, Readability or Pocket (formerly known as "Read It Later"). All three apps are made for viewing curated web pages offline. They keep a "reading list" of all the stuff you sent to them, so it is convenient to come back later to these apps and read your stuff.

They also "curate" the web page you send them in order to remove ads, menus, headers and such. this mostly work for all three apps.

So, which one is the best? Well, this is all a matter of perspective and preference. Here are mine:

Readability

By far, the most elegant of all three apps. I do have a few grudges against it:
  • One can only read by scrolling and not by paging. Unfortunately I prefer paging by far. Just like I prefer paging when I read a novel in iBooks, I prefer paging when reading any long piece of written content.
  • You can only choose between three fonts. There are plenty of fonts installed on iOS, why not propose them?
  • The choice of font-size is... Well... not fine grained by any means. There are 5 predefined sizes. Of course, the size I would like is between two of the sizes proposed.
  • You can only read in portrait mode, not in landscape mode. I like landscape because it shows me longer lines.
  • Clicking on a link jumps straight to Safari. Isn't (one of) the purpose of this app to be able to read offline? Not practical at all.
  • As many images are also links, it is more often then not impossible to zoom in on an image. The click will jump to Safari to open the link. Useless offline.
  • An inline video in the article does not show up in the curated article. You don't even have a hint that you're missing something.
The good parts:
  • The reading list gives you the number of minutes it'll take to read each entry. This give you a pretty good sense of how long the entry is.
  • Best UI of the lot, very homogeneous and smooth. This is important.
  • for example, when you increase font size, it applies to the body and the title of the article. This is the only app doing that.
  • it is consistently downloading all images of all articles.
All in all - and despite its shortcomings - I like it. Even the logo is cool. It makes me want to sit in a sofa and read...

Pocket

The bad parts:
  • Pocket has a presentation of your reading list that bewilders me. The title is written on the left and an image is displayed on the right hand side. This makes it looks just plain weird as sometimes the images are ugly and some articles don't even have one. And all entries have different height in the list making difficult to differentiate them sometimes.
  • On the reading side, the page-by-page mode is a bit hit and miss. To activate it you have to swipe from the right to the left, but this gesture is often confused with just plain scrolling. When going landscape, the page-by-page mode goes off and you have to activate it again.
  • The page-by-page mode has also a disturbing quirk: when you tap in the middle of the screen, it shows the header and menu bar at the bottom, which is customary. But in Pocket's case, these bar overlap the two last lines of the screen which then disappear. Thus, if you go to the next page, you are missing out on 2 lines of text (not drawn) for each page. When you tap again to make them disappear, the hidden text doesn't come back. You have to go to the next page and then go back. This is disturbing.
  • In page-by-page mode, you have no idea of your progression in the article you're reading. No scrollbar, no progress bar, nothing.
  • There are only two fonts available. Still better than one, but come on! This app is dedicated to reading, let us choose fonts!
  • Playing with font size doesn't affect the title of the article. You can end up with a title smaller than the body of the article. Not very elegant.
  • I also have images that won't get downloaded. On some blogs/sites it is even almost always the case. There's just nothing in their place... you don't even know you're missing something.
The good parts:
  • Clicking on an image opens it up and you can zoom in.
  • When you have a link in an article, Pocket will propose to open it as if it was another item in your reading list. So you don't have to quit the app to read it. But it doesn't get saved in your reading list. Of course also only works if you are online, defeating the purpose of the app. Couldn't I "Read It Later"? And to think the app was once named exactly like that...
  • You can choose your font size point by point.
  • An inline video in the article actually show up in the curated article. Of course, you cannot read it offline, and that one is understandable.

All in all, this is the less elegant app of the three, but it gets the job done. And it handles videos - it is the only one.

Instapaper

Here are my grudges:
  • The reading list is written in a tiny font and the excerpt in an even tinier font. And there is nothing you can do about it.
  • On the reading side, the page-by-page is a bit needy. If you go from landscape to portrait (or the other way) you have to quit your article and open it again for it to work, otherwise it's just plain clunky.
  • The page-by-page view is a bit buggy and below images there is sometimes a chunk of text outside the screen that you can't read. It doesn't happen very often though... Also, images are scaled to take the full width of the screen. If the rescaled image is higher than the screen, it is cropped. Not much of a problem when reading in portrait mode, pretty ugly when reading in landscape mode. Fortunately, you can click on an image to see it full screen and zoom inside it, so it is just impractical.
  • Playing with font size doesn't affect the title of the article. You can end up with a title smaller than the body of the article. Not very elegant.
  • I've also had images that would not be downloaded inside articles. It is pretty much consistent and no matter how many times I try to redownload the article, they're always missing. These are the same images missing from Pocket. Readability displays them fine. I couldn't figure out what makes these images not work in those apps. The good thing is that Instapaper displays the ALT/TITLE property instead (usually, the tooltip), so you know something is missing.
  • An inline video in the article does not show up in the curated article.
Here are the things I like about it:
  • Clicking on an image opens it up and you can zoom in.
  • In your reading list, you have a sense of the length of each article and this is a definitive plus.
  • You can choose among a 14 fonts (why not all the fonts installed on the device? - this is a mystery)
  • Clicking on a link gives you the option of opening the target in Safari or adding it to your reading list. If you're offline, well, it'll get added later. THIS is the proper way to handle links.
  • The reading view is elegant - just like the other apps - and there is a progress bar at the bottom. This is cool.
  • You can choose your font size point by point.
  • You can choose your margins and line spacing.
  • There is a link at the end of all articles to report a problem in an article such as a missing image for example.
  • The page-by-page navigation is the best of all three apps, despite it bugs and quirks. For example, it allows you to tap on the right of the screen to go to the next page, instead of swiping which is more tedious after a while when holding the phone one handed.

Wrap up

All in all, those three apps get the job of reading articles offline done. They also curate the webpages displayed to remove the chrome and other useless stuff. This works mostly for all three of the apps. I've had a few glitches here and there on all three apps.

Except Instapaper, the apps are free, so please indulge yourself and give them a shot.

For me though, Readability shines by its elegance and design, and also because it is the only app that works... Indeed, most of the grudges I hold against both other apps are a long list of bugs. Instapaper shines for my by its functionality. So far I'm using Instapaper and sometimes Readability to read stuff with images. If I didn't need page-by-page reading, I'd be a Readability-only guy.

I'll try to update this blog entry as the apps get updated. If you see anything I should add or remove, please let me know in the comments.

Changelog

October 10, 2014: Both Readability and Pocket were updated yesterday. Now, all three of the apps are compatible with the big new iPhones (6 and 6Plus) and compatible with iOS8 sharing, meaning you can send them pages from any app. None of the issues I mentioned in my article were addressed.

This article was last updated on November 3, 2014

Categories : iPhone and iOS, Android

Google is reading your email

We learned this week that Google tipped the police about some child porn in one of it's users mailbox, and I have a big problem with this. While I'm glad there's one less child molester running around, the fact that Google got its hands on this image(s) is proof that Google can and does look inside mailboxes of gmail users. And I am a gmail user.

There are two things here that trouble me.

The first one is that I do sometimes forward a received mail without thoroughly looking through the attachments. Granted, I usually know the sender and the likelihood that some child porn found its way in there is actually very remote. But still. I expect my mail to be shared with the recipient and no one else...

Now, the first concern is a little theoretical. I'm quite certain that Google searching for child porn in gmail boxes is not really a threat to me. But once the box is opened, who knows where it'll stop? Will they be searching for terrorists? Political opponents? Will searching for "homemade bomb" in gmail be reported to the police? Where does it stops, really?

The answer is of course: we don't know. And that worries me.

For now, I'm sticking with gmail because I don't have time to switch to something else. But I'm already thinking about leaving, and I will at some point.

Tags : , ,
Categories : News

iTunes Match vs. Google Play Music on the iPhone

Okay, so we already had a look at both services on the desktop. It's now time to get to the iPhone for a mobile app comparison. Why the iPhone? Because on Android, you cannot use iTunes Match. It's that simple.

On the Apple's front, the default music app is doing all the heavy lifting. In the settings you need to fill in your iTunes Match credentials and activate iTunes Match. Being the built-in app, it enjoys an in depth integration with the phone. For example, any music in your default music app can become a ringtone or can wake you up. You can also search your music from the home screen. It's an unfair advantage (I don't think Google could do it even if they wanted to), i'll grant you that, but it's there. The app is otherwise pretty easy and nicely done. Here, again, you can choose to stream or download songs and/or albums. They'll download in the background and if anything fails (because you suddenly go offline for example) it'll pop you a dialog so that you know. Same as in the desktop app, you can choose to view only your local collection or to see the whole iTunes Match library. The songs can be controlled through the lock screen, the headphones and while playing, your lock screen shows the album cover art and the song name, album, artist etc. It's pretty neat and works well.

One thing that annoys me is that whenever you recycle the app (restarting the phone for example) the playlist is lost. iTunes fares better on the desktop on that front. That said, whenever you launch the app it will get back to where you were, most often on the album you last listened to.

On Google's front, the app is called "Google Play Music" and is free. Once installed, you enter your Google credentials and all your music shows up. From there, you can download the music you want to listen to offline. But only albums, not individual songs. And if you leave the App (of turn off your phone) the download stops and doesn't resume automatically whenever you turn it on again. That makes the process of downloading songs a little hit and miss or painful as you have to keep the phone turned on and the app running until it finishes.

As in the default music app, you can search artists/tracks/albums but for some reason, it doesn't work. And it's not as if it kinda worked, no, on most searches I get nothing even though I know I have an album of that name. I can only think it is a bug and will be fixed, but I could not avoid mentioning it.

Another drawback of Google's music app is that it does not remember your playlist, just like the website and the default music app. So you're listening to an album then do other stuff on your phone. When you launch the app again, if it has been recycled it will show up your home screen and there is no way to resume your album - that is, unless you know which album and which track you were listening to. Pretty painful for me.

There is also the artist art, just like on the website, which is a little maddening when many artists don't have any picture and some others bewildering things in there.

One note about some annoying thing. When I tried to update tags in already-imported MP3 files, well, the files would not update as we've seen in the previous article. However, I quickly ended up with albums that showed up two or three times, as well as albums where each song would appear twice. Duplicated tracks also showed up on the website, but duplicated albums only appeared on the iOS app. And from there, the only solution I found to fix the issue was to uninstall and reinstall the app. Quite painful.

Other than that, the app works fine and my music plays just fine as well. The controls also works from the lock screen and headphones, and the album art is also displayed on the lock screen with all other infos.

The wrap up

In Apple's favor:
  • Better integration to iOS (unfair advantage, but advantage nonetheless)
  • Download are much more likely to actually get downloaded.
  • Ability to view only the music you have offline.

There's really nothing where the play music app surpasses Apple's.

And the winner is Apple, just like on the desktop. That said, just like on the desktop, both apps actually work and are solid music players, but Google's version is notably lacking some pretty useful features and some maturity. I'm just back from holidays in a place where I didn't have free cellular access, and to sum it up, I didn't listen to music at all since most of my albums were not downloaded and I had no simple way of finding out which ones were anyways. Google's music player is, in this regard, barely useable.

iTunes Match vs. Google Play Music on the desktop

My iTunes Match subscriptions isn't working anymore (some tech issue that will be fixed soon I hope) so I got to test Google Play Music for a couple of weeks. That's great!

In this first post, I will compare both services on the desktop. There is a second post with a look at iOS.

Updating your cloud collection

First off, the program that does update your music collection. On Apple's side, it's simply iTunes. On Google's side, it's an app called the Music Manager. The key difference I could find is about the way to add a new album once the initial sync is complete. On Apple's side, you need to manually add the album to your iTunes collection. On Google's side, if all your MP3s are in some central repos, the app updates your collection automatically. I couldn't get that working on Linux at home, probably because my music is on a samba share, meaning it's not on a local drive and the app doesn't get any notification when a file is updated. So I have to quit the app and launch it again for it to rescan my folders. Still simpler than Apple's approach. On the bad side, Google seems to store your MAC address on the first connection and forbids you to connect from any other MAC address. That's... bewildering.

One word on Tagging and Covers. iTunes Match is quite picky when it comes to covers and some albums never got a cover. There was very few albums in that state for me so it was no biggie, but still, Google's program is much better at handling covers. However, with Google, I could not figure out how to update a tag in a MP3 file. You can go to the website and update your song, but I would have liked the updater to automatically update the songs on which I modified any ID3 tag... On iTunes you can just delete the album and re-import it. It's not perfect, but it works.

So, on Google's side:

  • Automatically uploads songs I add to my MP3s repos (even if this feature needs work).
  • Works on Linux. I'm on Linux at home, so that's a plus for me.
  • Better covers support. More formats supported (Apple's list is more restrictive). Both support the formats that count for me - MP3 and a tiny bit of AAC.
On Apple's side:
  • The update works on any machine with iTunes on it. That's a plus if you want to update your collection from multiple places. Or if you ever change your PC. I cannot imagine that Google will keep that policy (I can only update from the first PC I ever updated from) in place for long but you never know.
  • Updating a tag in an MP3 file can be propagated to the clients.

So, that was for the update part.

The player

Apple's player is, once again, iTunes. That's no tiny lightweight app, but the behemoth behaves. You might like it or not, but you can find you music and play it. It will register to the play/pause/next/etc keys on your multimedia keyboard. After a reboot you get your playlist where you left it. You can download songs to have them locally or stream your songs, your choice. If you choose to download songs, you can decide to view only the songs you have locally. That's useful when you only want to see part of your collection. I share the same iTM account between me, my wife and kids, so there is a sizeable part of my collection I'm not interested in.

Google went the way of the web app. So everything works on your browser of choice, providing you have flash. There is an option to get your sound played with the HTML5 output, but it doesn't work reliably and at some point no sound at all comes from the damn thing and you just have to press F5 to refresh the tab. And lose your playlist. Because the webapp doesn't store your current playlist. localStorage anyone? Anyways... Also, no way to listen to anything offline. You have to be connected. No biggie on a desktop, not so much on a laptop. But, for all its caveats, the app works and you find your music quickly. It is pleasant to use. Then, there is this "Artist art" that is an image depicting your artists. You kind of see it everywhere. All artists will have one, except those that don't and you cannot do shit about it. Can't change them (and they're pretty inconsistent so far). Can't avoid them. That's the way it is. Whether you like those images or not.

So, on Google's side:

  • Works on all OSes where flash works, which is more than Apple's offering: Windows and Mac. Again, I use Linux at home...
On Apple's side:
  • Remembers your playlist after a reboot / app restart.
  • Ability to work offline. Also ability to hide the music you don't have locally.
  • Handles multimedia keys on the keyboard.

Wrap up

Both offerings are solid and work well, unless you're offline where Google's offering will stop dead, or if you're on Linux and then it's Apple's offering that won't work (I run my iTunes in a Vista VM - quite the painful way). But more people are offline on their laptop than on Linux.

Google wins on the update side and Apple's on the player side. Since one's supposedly spends much more time listening than updating/adding stuff in one's collection, I'll have to declare Apple the winner on the desktop. And believe me, I'm no fan of iTunes. And yes, Google's offering is Free vs 25€/year for Apple. I still think Apple's offering is stronger.

There is a second post with a look at the situation on iOS

Categories : General rambling

iOS7 - At last some real usability improvements.

Don't worry, I'm not going to write a review of iOS7. I lack the time and the patience to do so, but I wanted to share with you some usability improvements that really make the platform more usable for me. And saved me two spots on my home screen.

The first one is with the flashlight. You're not discovering anything here as it's been all over the news already, but having the flashlight two taps away from the lock screen realy comes in handy. And gone is the flashlight app from my home screen.

Then comes the alarm clock and timer. I used an alarm app called Touch LCD, mostly because you didn't have to think to figure out when you're going to wake up. When launching the app, you see the time of the next alarm and the time between now and the next alarm, which gives you the hint of whether the next alarm is set for tomorrow or for another day. On the stock alarm clock, you have to hunt through your alarms that are on, check the time, check the day of week they're supposed to ring and figure it out for yourself. The problem is that sometimes when going to bed, part of my brain is already sleeping (or drunk for that matter). These times, it is painful.

Now, in the notification center, you see instantly the next alarm setup for either today or tomorrow. No need to hunt in settings.

The snooze has also been improved. Again, whenever the alarm clock rings, part of my brain is sleeping (actually all of it) and sometimes I'll hit snooze and sometimes I'll unlock thinking I hit snooze. Then I wake up and I have no way of knowing if a snooze is in progress or not. Maddening.

Now, right in the lock screen, you see the time remaining from the last snooze, with seconds counting down. Really helpful.

There is also the timer. When cooking something, my iPhone has become my new countdown device of choice. I have it in my pocket so wherever I am when it goes off, I hear it. The problem is: how much times remain? Get your phone out of your pocket, unlock it, hunt for the clock app, see the time remaining.

Now, also right in the lock screen, you see the time remaining for the current timer, with seconds counting down. Really helpful.

The last item is the Messages app. Whenever sending an SMS to anyone, you kind of never know if it got through or not. If it fails to get delivered, you see a nice "!" icon on the SMS app. That is, if you think about looking at it. If your phone sits in your pocket, you will never be notified.

In iOS7, the failure to send an SMS sends you a notification, just as if you'd just received an SMS. Much smoother.

 

Well, all in all, all these are small things, but they add up to the overall usability of the entire device.

Tags : , , ,
Categories : iPhone and iOS

Limbo

So, I'm not going to write the umpteenth review of Limbo, the game by PlayDead. There are plenty already. But one thing bothers me about this game.

Well, it's great. Not in the game itself but the mise-en-scène, the universe, ambiance. The graphics are stunning, the music bewitching, the whole thing nightmarish. It's not about game controls or maneuverability, it's about the journey this little boy will take. And of course, when you're done, you wish there was more.

And why not? I'm sure that with the success they had they got their money's worth from Limbo. So why is there nothing more than this? Because for all the praise Limbo gets, there is one downside: the game is done quickly, very quickly. And I'm fine with this. I understand PlayDead was a small company with not much resources. And they did well.

So I hear here and there that they sold the rights to some big firm which will invest heavily into a 3D-based sequel. Which I don't want. I mean, it might be great and all, I'm sure, but that's not what I want right now. What I want is more of the same. Let's say he's now unsure about the fate of his little brother, and let's start over the whole thing! The same game, with more levels, more forest, more villages more factories, more hotels, more rain, more floodings, more spiders (but less gravity jumps please.)

Why not? Angry Birds did exactly that. The Rio edition or the Seasons edition was exactly that: More of the same. Sure, a couple more musics, a few twitches into the game engine, a couple of new monsters. But the core game is the exact same. Why can't they do that with Limbo? As I said, the game is not great because of its levels or controls, but about the universe it plunges the player in. We want more of that!

All in all, there is one thing I want to say now that I'm done with Limbo:

Moar! Gimme moar!

Categories : General rambling
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