Archive: December, 2014

Essential iPhone apps for 2014

My home screen as of December 2014.

My iPhone app usage aligns with the 80-20 rule. Most apps I try are completely disposable; within a few days I delete them or relegate them to a folder off the home screen, for use only on rare occasions. Yet I use a handful of apps every day. They stand the test of time for months, if not years, of usage. As we wrap up 2014, I wanted to highlight my “must-haves”. Many are well known within tech circles, but there’s a few lesser known apps that are also worth your time.

News and Social media

Alien Blue. My Reddit usage pales in comparison to other social media and news sources. I never comment, happy to scan a handful of design and gaming subreddits for links and general information. Thankfully, Alien Blue handles the browsing component well. It deserves special praise for its handling of image galleries and videos, both of which pop up frequently on Reddit threads.

News Funnel. Another plug for my self-built news site that lists top stories from Designer News and Hacker News. It sizes down effectively for the iPhone (and other mobile devices) so I can scan both sites easily.

Nuzzel. The app aggregates and lists the most linked to articles in your Twitter feed, ordered by popularity. There’s no faster way to see what’s trending among my Twitter friends. And via the “news from friends of friends” option, I usually discover some tech, film or gaming related articles I would have otherwise missed. I’ve tried many tools that build content off of my Twitter feed; none of have stuck the way Nuzzel has.

NYT Now. I was I was skeptical of the streamlined, simplified interface of NYT Now when it debuted earlier this year. Yet after a week of usage it secured a permanent slot on my phone’s home screen. At its core, NYT Now lists the full NYT app’s top stories, but adds larger imagery and helpful bullet point summaries for articles I don’t have time to read. It’s that smart use of bullet points that make all the difference on the go.

Reeder. I like having full control over my news aggregation, so for me there’s no substitute for RSS in the form of a Feedbin account. On the go, Reeder is my Feedbin reader of choice. There are other quality apps with Feedbin integration, but I find Reeder syncs faster than the competition. Also, the screen density of list items – dense but not too dense – matches my workflow. It’s about speed and sharing to other services like Pocket and Twitter, not lingering to read full stories.

Tweetbot. I check up on Twitter frequently, which makes a strong Twitter client essential. And while there’s been strong improvements on the official Twitter app lately, it still can’t match the speed and customization Tweetbot offers. Its timeline sync between devices is an especially nice touch.


Hours. I like to keep track of how much I’m working on both my day job and side tasks. I first tried popular web based time tracking software like Harvest and Toggl. But both felt optimized around more complex, team based workflows, when I prefer a simpler system. Enter Hours. The app centers on an intuitive interface for me to start, stop, and switch timers easily. It could use a Dropbox or iCloud based backup, not to mention a more customizable export system. But those are small quibbles on an otherwise strong 1.0 product.

Mailbox. I generally shy away from email apps that try to add their own productivity features on top of my inbox. But Mailbox adds its extras elegantly; with swipe gestures to archive or delete messages, I’m able to move through my inbox much faster than previous mail clients (there’s no coincidence Apple added similar swipe functionality to Mail with iOS8.) Overall, Mailbox adds just enough functionality to add value, but not too much to distract from my inbox content.

Pocket. My one stop source for catching up on content I’ve saved elsewhere on the web and aforementioned news apps like Tweetbot and Reeder. Parsing has gotten better over the years and the clean, stripped down reader view is easier on the eyes than many original web sources.

Wunderlist. I dig Omnifocus as a task manager for complex work tasks, but it’s overkill for simple to-do lists I write for chores, tasks at home, and other miscellaneous work. I’ve previously bounced around and tried Clear and Todoist, but both ultimately lacked staying power. Clear has a cool minimalist interface driven by gestures, but it was too simplistic for my needs and I’d run into occasional iCloud sync delays between devices. Todoist provides a lot more power, but the additional filters and searches overlapped too much with Omnifocus. Wunderlist finds a middle ground between Clear and Todoist; its sync is rock solid and the shared lists are useful and easy to set up with family members.


Next. Like with aforementioned time tracking, my budgeting needs are simple, centered on daily spending for expenses like restaurants, drinks, apps, and electronics. Because I’m entering in new entries manually each day, a smart entry UI is critical, and Next nails this perfectly. I tap a large category button, enter the amount and I’m done.

Overcast. For years I used Instacast to listen to podcasts. But eventually the complexity of extra features I never used (e.g. sleep timers, individual podcast settings), combined with several periods of slow syncing let me to try other clients. Marco Arment’s new Overcast matches my podcast flow perfectly; its interface is stripped down and straightforward, syncing is extremely reliable, and I use both of the exclusive “smart speed” and “voice boost” features heavily. There’s also a few small design touches I appreciate, like the audio equalizer animation during playback and the use of Concourse for typography.

Rise. I first scoffed at the idea of a dedicated alarm clock given the utility of Apple’s Clock app. But Rise is beautiful and has custom alarms that can progressively rise in volume, which I find is a more relaxing, peaceful way to be woken up. Most importantly, its gesture interface makes setup very easy, an important consideration given how often I change my wakeup time slightly from day to day.

RunKeeper. I run several times a week, and while I like select features on Strava and other fitness apps, I’ve always come back to RunKeeper for GPS-based run logging. The app has a straightforward interface that’s easy to both interact with and read as you run. I also appreciate the high degree of customization for automated voice notifications on your distance, time and speed.

Weather Line. I feel like I’ve tried at least twenty weather apps over the years, but since I started using Weather Line a year ago, I’ve been hooked. Like a few other weather apps, it has Dark Sky integration, which I find essential (so much so I own the original Dark Sky app for extra detail during rainy weather.) But Weather Line has a unique line graph interface that’s easily scannable to see how the rest of the day or week will pan out. I haven’t found another app that’s quite as intuitive, especially for a quick glance.

App Santa

It’s that time of year again; several critically acclaimed apps get a discount for the holidays. Many rarely get a discount, so it’s worth jumping on these sales before they end on December 26th.

It’s a extremely strong set of applications, but I’d personally recommend Tweetbot, Drafts 4, Scanner Pro, MindNode, Next, and Clear.

Typeset In the Future: Alien

Another meticulously detailed Typeset In the Future post, this time about the use of Futura, Helvetica, and many other fonts in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The movie is a masterpiece of horror, sci-fi, and suspense, one of my favorite movies of all time. So it’s wonderful to see author Dave Addey geek out in such depth on small typographic cues contained all over the picture. It’s complemented with lots of freeze frames and behind the scenes knowledge.

My custom Yosemite icons

New icons
New app icons for iTerm, Mailbox, nvAlt, Spotify, Sublime Text, and Tweetbot.

Yosemite’s most striking change to Mac OS X are its visuals, a nod to bring the OS more in line with iOS. That’s distilled in its new set of default system app icons. As John Siracusa writes in his Yosemite review:

Apple is trying to discipline the world of OS X icons. While one icon shape has been deemed insufficient, Apple believes three shapes should just about do it: circle, rectangle, and tilted rectangle…Visual simplification is the order of the day, and details that don’t read well at small icon sizes have been excised.

Unfortunately several apps I use heavily haven’t updated their icon and clash with Yosemite’s new look. In a sea of flat minimalism, bold colors, and thinner typography, a few icons that don’t follow trends can really stand out. So I hunted on Dribbble to find suitable replacements. Below I’ve provided a few direct links if you’re interested in grabbing them for yourself.

Old icons
The default app icons.

If you haven’t replaced an app icon yet, it’s an easy process in Yosemite:

  • Right/command click on the app in Finder. Select “Get Info”. A dialog box will open.
  • In another Finder window, find the new replacement .icns file for the app. Click on the icns file and drag it over to the existing app Get Info dialog box. Release the file on top of the existing app icon at the very top of the dialog box.

In terms of my replacements:

  • iTerm isn’t far off the mark but I wanted a more minimal, flatter look that better paired with Apple’s Terminal icon. Jason Long’s take is a better match.

  • Mailbox overall looks great, but the “in construction” thin lines (albeit with good purpose to signify beta status) all over the Mailbox icon were distracting. Chris Jennings made a very clean replacement that goes well with Mailbox’s minimalist aesthetic.

  • nvALT has a clever icon with a small stack of sheets alongside a rocket ship taking off. But it’s busy in the context of Yosemite. So I went ahead and created my own amateur work in Sketch combined with Icon Slate for output. Download it here.

  • Spotify’s default icon already works with color and a circular shape. Yet I wanted something with a more subtle gradient, punchier color and more clearly defined edge to the icon. Sebastian de With’s Muir set was my first choice, but after using it for a few days the white coloring for the icon’s sonic waves felt off from Spotify’s black aesthetic. So I switched to Jean-François Goncalves’s work. It’s very similar, but with black instead of white accents.

  • The great Iconfactory put together Sublime Text’s “big button” style original icon, yet it never resonated with me; it was just a bit too “cute” for my tastes. I’ve used other replacements while on Mac OS 10.9, but for Yosemite I’ve settled on a simple tilted rectangle icon from Rafael Conde. I love the subtle cross hatching on the icon’s background.

  • Tapbots have always had a playful and original bent to their wonderful Tweetbot app; that gives some creative license away from Yosemite’s usual icon layout. But Ilja Miskov put together an option that plays better; it mirrors Tweetbot’s simpler iOS icon cropped to circular form for Yosemite.

When to use @⁠extend; when to use a mixin

Designer/developer/speaker Harry Roberts of CSS Wizardry isn’t generally a big extend fan:

Let me start by saying that I would generally advise never to use @extend at all. It is something of a Fool’s Gold: a feature with a lot of promise and twice as many caveats.

Compared to Harry I’m a Sass newbie, but I always found the extend call, much like nesting, mildly discomforting. This post helped me understand exactly.

Product design teardown of the “Destiny” video game

From the moment I first saw the Destiny beta, from the UI to the art direction and even the main ‘feel’ of the game, I knew there was something distinctly different about its game design. So props to the design blog Betterment for laying out some of the biggest hooks Bungie’s epic first person shooter/MMO have to offer. As many reviewers have noted, even with a severe lack of content and repetitive mission nature, there’s something supremely addictive about its gameplay. To quote Betterment author Jason Amunwa:

Destiny uses multiple systems to tease our brain’s pleasure center with anticipation of a reward, combined with activating our nucleus accumbens by making the reward variable at every level. It’s essentially commandeering players’ anticipation – whether it’s getting loot, exchanging Engrams, or what-have-you – and using it as an itch to motivate just one more play.

Our feeble brains’ pleasure centers never stood a chance.

7 rules for creating gorgeous UI (part 1)

I’ve bounced between web design and development for years. As someone who has never had a formal instruction in visual design, Erik Kennedy’s primer on this Medium post isn’t a bad start for those new. I especially like his thought processes behind rule three: double your white space. Might be a bit overkill compared to what’s absolutely necessary, but it’s one of the first mistakes I see from design newbies, especially developers starting to dabble in design work.

Spotify’s broken math: Why the streaming model may never work for artists

David Greenwald, writing fro The Oregonian:

Here is the gigantic, crucial difference between piracy and streaming. In piracy, we don’t have listening numbers: we don’t know if an album downloaded for free was listened to 100 times or 0. A download might represent a lost sale or it might represent a listener adding to an endless collection or sampling one album among dozens, as if hearing the song on the radio. We really have no idea. But with streaming, we absolutely know. The statistics are right there. And artists should be paid accordingly: maybe not $10 a fan, but definitely more than a few pennies.

There’s a cold ratio at play here: the less popular a band is, the more money they need to generate per fan to reach a break-even point. However, the more popular a band is, the more ways they have of generating money per fan — and often they can generate more money per fan anyway, with deluxe packages at shows and branding opportunities, especially if you consider corporations to be people, as the Supreme Court does. It is a fundamentally unfair marketplace that privileges the already successful, which is rarely the path to innovation — or interesting art.


Another great find that I heard from a speaker at Sass Summit. It’s a really ingenious methodology to write a running style guide for your work in your source Sass or CSS directory. Basically by writing souped up comments direct in your CSS with a mixture of HTML and Markdown, you can run a ruby process and autogenerate a great looking style guide to the destination of your choice.

For Gulp fans, there’s a simple plugin as well as an alternative to the Ruby gem.

Dueing it wrong

Writer Shawn Blanc on smart custom perspectives in Omnifocus:

In short, you should create your own custom perspective for “Today”. And let that list show you all the tasks which are either Due today or which are Flagged. When you are doing your daily review and scrubbing your list, don’t think about what’s due — because it should already be given a proper due date — instead, just flag the tasks you want to get done that day. Then, go to your Today perspective and now you’ve got a list of items which are both urgent (i.e. due today) and important (i.e. flagged).

Bingo. When I started using Omnifocus, virtually everything had a strict due date, which became maddening after time. When everything is “due”, it’s hard to manage what is really important. Overall, be less aggressive with real due dates unless it’s really due.