As you read this issue of TidBITS, Google Reader is approaching the bit bucket. The popular RSS reading and syncing service is set to be shuttered after 1 July 2013, but the good news for RSS fans is that Josh Centers has a roundup of the best alternatives. If keeping up with Internet headlines isn’t your idea of fun, perhaps you’d prefer to try your hand at the Battle of Britain, in Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders, which brings World War II dogfighting action to your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. For those favoring more thoughtful pastimes, Michael Cohen delves into the role of footnotes in ebooks, Steve Aquino examines how the Markdown language has enabled him to become a freelance writer despite being legally blind, and we look at how iOS 7 promises to open up access to Apple’s educational online services to children under the age of 13. Finally, we’re publishing Jeff Carlson’s next book, “Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” as a series of articles for TidBITS members — check it out! Notable software releases this week include Transmit 4.4 and PopChar X 6.3.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was passed in 1998 to protect children online, but the result has often been that children under 13 years of age are excluded from online services. Service providers are required to obtain parental consent for children under 13 in order to collect their personal information, but it’s often not worth the effort, so many providers, such as Facebook, ban young children entirely.
As Adam Engst previously detailed in “How COPPA Teaches Children to Lie” (15 November 2011), this legislation and its unintended consequences have been a huge roadblock to computing in education, forcing children and parents to falsify age data to access useful services. Unfortunately, schools can’t get away with breaking the law so blatantly, so Apple services such as iTunes U and iCloud have been off-limits to elementary and middle-school classes where children are under 13, despite heavy adoption of the iPad for educational use.
Students with Apple ID can have an enhanced personal experience with access to great online services like iTunes U, iCloud backup, and the ability to receive licenses in the new Volume Purchase Program. And now schools will have a program to facilitate Apple obtaining verifiable parental consent for personal Apple IDs for students under age 13.
This is fantastic news for educators, and being able to use iTunes U content in schools could be a game changer at many different levels. As Chambers said, “this is a very big deal.”
Remember how, when Apple first introduced iPhoto, it was supposed to take over from the stereotypical shoebox in which we supposedly stored our photos? And initially, it did. But over time, as the number of digital photos we took increased, first quickly, then seemingly exponentially, iPhoto became less and less able to keep up. For many people, iPhoto has become just a virtual shoebox, where you import photos and ignore them.
We have a solution for you, but like so many problems, the fix for this one is less about what tools you use and more about how you work. Don’t get me wrong, choosing and configuring the right tool is important, and that’s part of the overall approach that you’ll learn from our senior editor Jeff Carlson, who has become an award-winning photographer and author of popular photography books like “The iPad for Photographers” over the past few years. But the key is learning the best methods of importing, culling, rating, and organizing your photos — as automatically and effortlessly as possible — and turning Jeff’s real-world advice into
You’re probably expecting that our solution will take the form of a Take Control ebook, and you’d be right, but we have something new for you too. Jeff’s in the middle of writing “Take Control of Your Digital Photos” right now, so you can’t buy it yet, but you can start reading immediately. The introductory chapter of the book is available now for everyone at “Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” Chapter 1, and we’ll continue posting chapters as articles on the TidBITS Web site — call them “chapticles” if you will — each week as they’re written and edited over the next 6 to 8 weeks.
By the end, you’ll have been able to read the entire book… if you’ve joined the TidBITS membership program. We’ve always provided TidBITS members with a 30-percent discount on all Take Control books and significant discounts on a wide variety of Mac software, but to make a TidBITS membership even more valuable, all TidBITS members will be able to read the entire book chapter by chapter, just like any other article (you need to be logged in to the TidBITS Web site with your member account to see them). The only limitation is that links to other parts of the book won’t be live, since those parts haven’t yet been published.
You can even leave comments on each chapter, just like any other TidBITS article, and in fact, we encourage you to do so! Jeff will respond directly and adjust the text of the book appropriately as the project continues, and we’ll alert members to new chapters as we publish them. You can also opt to receive individual TidBITS articles in email, including these, as soon as they’re published, by selecting the Receive All Articles checkbox in the member-only Your Subscriptions page. The individual chapters will remain accessible on the TidBITS site indefinitely, and if you want the full book in classic Take Control PDF, EPUB, and Mobi form when we’re done, the 30-percent member discount
All this is possible thanks to some new production tools we’re using, a combination of Nisus Writer Pro and a Markdown conversion macro written by Joe Kissell with the Leanpub publishing engine that turns that Markdown into EPUB, from which we can extract the nicely formatted HTML you’ll see in each chapter online. (The TidBITS Publishing System uses Markdown natively too, but we get more formatting flexibility by relying on the HTML extracted from EPUB.) The system is simultaneously elegant and baroque, but it’s been a lot of fun to build. We hope you like the results!
A few months ago, I made the agonizing decision to leave my job of eleven years with my local school district, where I worked with preschoolers with special needs. Several factors played into my decision, but the main one was that I wanted to commit more time to pursuing what I really love to do: write.
I’ve always had a deep affection for writing, and I’ve always dreamt of a time when I could devote more attention to it, thereby elevating my craft from its “hobby” status. At least initially, my decision to change careers has paid off. I’ve had success in procuring writing gigs, including this one, and many of my articles have been met with acclaim, such as “Re-Enabled,” which ran in The Magazine and was featured in the Hot News section of the Apple Web site. I think part of the reason my writing has been successful is that I write from a unique perspective.
As a visually impaired person (specifically, legally blind ) who is a proud Apple nerd, I can speak with authority on how accessibility technology positively impacts the use of my devices, particularly on iOS. Being able to write about this topic with such conviction is perhaps the chief benefit of being visually impaired, and one that I don’t take for granted. (Obviously, coping with legal blindness isn’t good by any stretch, but this stance makes the best of crummy circumstances.) My own experiences, as well as observing those of my former students, have helped shape my interest in modern, touch-based interfaces that are adaptable to those with disabilities. I love my Apple
devices, so I’m always looking for the best ways to interact with them. Luckily for users like myself, Apple has done a great job in providing a suite of comprehensive tools for doing so, such as VoiceOver.
In terms of my writing, all of what I write is for the Web. Whether freelancing or writing for my personal blog, I, like many others, compose everything in Markdown. I’ve been using Markdown for a couple of years now, and I absolutely adore it. I’m so familiar with it that it feels like second nature. Before discovering Markdown, and before I started freelancing, I wrote exclusively for my blog. My site runs on WordPress, so whenever I wanted to post, I would log into the WordPress CMS (content management system) and use its post editor to write in. While certainly functional, its interface is clunky and the experience isn’t great. More to the point, I would spend a lot of time
struggling to navigate the little formatting toolbar used to stylize text. Being visually impaired, monkeying around with toolbar buttons with a tiny cursor isn’t ideal. I eventually grew tired of using the CMS, and sought an alternative.
It was then that I stumbled upon John Gruber’s Markdown, and I fell in love immediately. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Markdown is a simple plain text formatting syntax developed in 2004 that is easy to write (well, easier than HTML) and that can be converted to structurally valid HTML. Amusingly, one of the inspirations for Markdown was setext, or structure-enhanced text, another plain text format created by Ian
Feldman with input from TidBITS publisher Adam Engst back in 1992 and used since then for TidBITS.
Markdown has changed my life for the better. Not only is it easier to work with than graphical interfaces given the limitations of my vision, but it has caused me to embrace plain text for nearly all of my documents. No longer do I have to work in bloated word processors with toolbars galore, or worry about rich-text formatting. Discovering Markdown has been liberating in the truest sense of the word.
Given Markdown’s nature, I came to the realization that it, however unintentionally, is in fact a wonderful accessibility tool, because it reduces eye strain while writing. The simplicity of Markdown’s syntax makes it possible to not have to look at the screen every time I want to italicize a word or insert a link. My eyes are more sensitive than most people’s insofar as I can stare at a screen only so long before fatigue and pain sets in. The less time I have to look at the screen, the better my eyes feel. Thus, what makes using Markdown so great is that I don’t have to waste time trying to locate buttons or menu options. I just glance down at my keyboard to ensure I’m pressing the right keys.
It may seem odd to think of Markdown as an enabling technology, until you consider what it takes to write in the context of being visually handicapped. It’s hard, because most software isn’t designed with users like myself in mind. That’s why there are specialized tools like ZoomText for people with vision impairments. But while tools like screen magnifiers and readers certainly have their place, they’re more complex than I like.
Instead of zooming in 200 percent on a toolbar, which takes up screen real estate, I wanted to eliminate my interaction with toolbars entirely. That’s exactly what Markdown does. It frees the user from dealing with toolbars and menus, while at the same time removing the burden of dealing with a screen magnifier or reader on top of whatever word processor or text editor one’s using.
It should be noted that trouble navigating toolbars isn’t a problem exclusive to visually impaired users. This discomfort is common amongst the normal-sighted too, who have long utilized apps like Keyboard Maestro to free themselves from having to decipher and click tiny, inscrutable toolbar buttons. Moreover, it’s certainly possible to use a word processor like Pages by using only the keyboard. In fact, I rely on many keyboard shortcuts in Mac OS X, as well as the excellent app launcher Alfred, to maneuver around. Like many others, I find these tools indispensable to my workflow, especially given my vision’s limitations.
As much as a proclamation that “Markdown changed my life!” sounds like hyperbole, I believe it’s true, at least to a certain extent. While I got by working in the WordPress CMS and in apps like Pages, the difference in my writing productivity then and now is profound.
Markdown has made doing what I love even more accessible. Anything that helps me see even a little better is a big deal, and I know my eyes are appreciative that I don’t subject them to any more torture than necessary. And by “torture,” I mean toolbars. In this sense, Markdown epitomizes accessibility, because it completely changes the quality of the experience despite my physical limitations.
The improvement in my writing experience has not only affected how I write, but also what I write. Because I’m not straining my eyesight as much, I can focus on what truly matters: the content. I’m extremely proud of the fact that, despite my vision impairment, I’ve been able to persevere and enjoy success as a writer.
Markdown can’t improve my vision, but it can help me to more easily share my unique perspective as a disabled tech nerd. These personal stories are valuable, I think, because they can help raise awareness of what I believe to be an underrepresented segment of the Apple user base. Using the WordPress CMS always felt like an uphill battle; I was constantly fighting to distinguish among all the buttons and menus. But with Markdown, it’s no struggle at all. All I’m doing is writing, and that’s the way it should be.
I’m not the first person to evangelize Markdown, nor will I likely be the last. Its popularity amongst writers who publish for the Web is a testament to its simplicity and ease of use, and to the many tools that have sprung up around it. That said, it’s exciting to extol Markdown’s virtues from a different perspective. Teaching myself Markdown was probably the best decision I’ve ever made as far as working toward establishing my Internet voice.
Markdown helps me write the words that expose others to the accessibility community, illustrating the impact iOS’s accessibility technologies have on disabled users and their iPhones and iPads. For that, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John Gruber for Markdown. It may not have been meant to be an accessibility tool, but for me, Markdown has inadvertently proven to be an integral part of my toolkit. I use it every day, and am forever grateful for its existence.
[Steven Aquino is a budding freelance technology writer who has contributed to The Magazine, Macworld, TidBITS, Tech.pinions, and Enhanced Vision. He also writes regularly for his personal site, Steven’s Blog. Prior to venturing into the world of (paid) writing, Steven spent 11 years working for his local school district as a classroom aide to preschoolers with special needs.]
Now that Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference has receded into the past, and the tympanum-shattering chatter about the Jony Ive-led redesign of the iOS interface and its (almost) complete abandonment of skeuomorphic design has begun to devolve into an Internet screaming match over whether the colors and gradients of iOS 7’s newly redesigned icons are the cat’s pajamas or the dog’s breakfast, reasoned discussion of when skeuomorphic design is appropriate and when it is not has been lost in the cacophony.
For those late to the polysyllabic geek-jargon game, here’s one of the several definitions of “skeuomorph” that Wikipedia offers:
an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original
Common examples of skeuomorphs in Apple’s user interface designs cited by the anti-skeuomorph faction include such popular whipping boys as the leather and torn-paper look of the current Calendar app, or the green-felt-table appearance of Game Center — examples where the look of the app’s interface adds no real clues about how to use it but is simply reminiscent of real-world artifacts that have a similar function (you can’t tear a virtual page off the Calendar — I know; I’ve tried). Supporters of skeuomorphism in turn cite counter-examples of useful skeuomorphs, such as the buttons on the Calculator app (which are useful in a touch environment like an iPhone screen).
But not all skeuomorphs are graphic interface elements. I came across another, less obvious, kind of skeuomorphism a few months back while I was doing the preliminary research for an updated edition of “Take Control of iBooks Author” — footnotes. In my Web travels I’d encountered more than one discussion of Apple’s newly released iBooks Author 2.0 ebook authoring tool in which the writer had complained that even with the release of a whole new version of the program Apple had omitted automatic footnote numbering (“unconscionably” was the implied subtext).
My initial reaction was, “Yep, that seems really lame.” And, superficially, it seemed so, since most word processors worthy of the name can handle that task.
But then I thought a little more deeply about the issue, employing a trick that has often worked well for me: ask a simple question.
In this case, my simple question was “What is a footnote, anyway?” And with that question came a bunch of related questions, such as, “What is a footnote’s purpose?” and “Why do footnotes look the way that they do?” and, finally, the big one: “Do we really need traditional footnotes in interactive digital books?” By the time I had answered them, I had come to realize that employing numbered footnotes in the kinds of books that iBooks Author makes would actually be a form of skeuomorphism.
To understand how I reached that conclusion, let’s start with my first question: What is a footnote?
Visually, a footnote is text that appears at the bottom of a printed page, usually set off from the main text by a smaller type size, typically preceded by a superscript symbol or number. The note’s preceding symbol or number matches a similar superscripted symbol or number that appears in the main text of the page.
And the purpose of a footnote? Actually, it can serve several possible purposes: to explain or expand upon something in the main text, to provide a citation or a translation, or to make some sort of comment. Regardless of the footnote’s specific purpose, its general purpose is to provide additional information to a text without interrupting the flow of the main text: the footnote marker in the main text signals that additional content is available, without actually bringing the text to a screeching halt to present it. Instead of
the text running smack into a boulder of digression, the marker merely signals the existence of the digression, but lets the main text flow easily over it, like a pebble in a stream. It is the reader who, upon seeing a note marker in the main text, decides whether to interrupt the text to seek and to view that additional information, or ignore it and keep on reading.
In other words, the footnote marker in the text signals the existence of additional content, the footnote itself provides that content, and the marker that precedes the footnote provides a visual link between the main text and the footnote content.
Which brings me to my next question: Why do footnotes look the way they do?
There are two aspects to this question’s answer: the production aspect and the usability aspect.
From a practical production standpoint, it’s an easy task for a typesetter to include a superscripted symbol in a line of text when typesetting a book. And, while a typesetter might find that composing a page of type with two sections – one for the main text, flowing down from the top of the page, and one for the footnote content, flowing up from the bottom — is not without its challenges, it is still much easier to do than to replicate in metal type how annotations appeared in manuscript texts prior to typesetting, with their various margin notes and interlineations placed on a page wherever they would fit.
From a usability standpoint, I’ve already hinted at the answer: the markers are easy for a reader to see while not being overly distracting, and the content that they signal is easy to find. All a reader needs to do is match the marker in the text to the marker that precedes the footnote, employing just a flick of the eye.
Even in the worst-case scenario for the reader (and the best-case scenario for the typesetter), the notes can be made into endnotes instead, so the reader has to turn to another page in the book to find the note that matches the marker, but that is not a huge challenge: a finger stuck in the book, or a paper-clip, or a paper bookmark, leads the reader quickly to the note page, and, once there, another flick of the eye serves to bring the reader to the note that corresponds to the in-text marker.
But that’s in a printed book. On a screen, a whole page may not be seen at once, and a glance often won’t suffice to lead a reader from a text marker on the page to a note at the bottom. Worse, the entire concept of a page may not exist in a digital environment. Instead, a reader usually has to click the note marker to get to the note content, using the miracle of hypertext.
Again, though, clicking such a marker is not hard: mouse pointers and trackpads are accurate devices, and clicking even a small footnote marker in on-screen text is not beyond the abilities of most computer users, even if it is does require more accuracy than most mouse or trackpad gestures.
But now we come to tablets, the realm in which the Multi-Touch books created by iBooks Author are found, and things become more problematic. In that realm, the pointing device is not a precision instrument, but a blunt fingertip. And, while a tablet screen can appear quite page-like, screen size and screen resolution constrain the amount of text that can appear on a tablet screen at any one time.
Including notes on the same page as the note marker, as one may do in printed books, becomes more wasteful given the limited display area available on a tablet — and certainly not an efficient thing to do, given that tablets are computing devices, quite capable of providing a hypertext link from marker to note. It’s much better to devote the limited page space onscreen to the main text and shunt the note content to someplace else.
At the same time, replicating the print convention of a tiny superscript number within the text to signal a note’s existence, and then making that marker into a hypertext link, results in a target that’s much harder to hit accurately with a finger than with a pointing device like a mouse or trackpad.
As a result, the print conventions of footnote markers, and on-page footnotes or endnotes, become either a much less efficient use of screen real estate (in the case of footnotes) or (for hyper-linked endnotes) a frustrating hit-or-miss experience for the reader when they are translated to the tablet environment. To attempt to replicate those print conventions in iBooks Author would lead to the creation of a skeuomorph: a design element that is functionally necessary in one medium but not so necessary in another.
Note that I’m not saying that notes and their markers are unnecessary in iBooks Author books, but, rather, that the specific implementation of them as numbered notes and superscript text markers may well be.
After all, iBooks Author provides oodles of annotation capabilities:
- You can take a word or phrase (a much easier target for a finger to tap than a tiny symbol) and make that into a link to transport the reader to additional content on another page, providing an endnote-like experience but with easier-to-hit targets.
- You can make use of the built-in Glossary tool to provide pop-up definitions and explanations for specific words and phrases in the text, again triggered by an easy-to-hit target, without taking up space on the screen that could be devoted to the main text.
For big digressions, you can use the Pop-over widget, which links a graphic (which can be a small, yet easily tapped inline image) to a floating pane that can contain lots of text and graphics.
As a result, I’m much less upset by the lack of automatically numbered footnotes in iBooks Author than some critics are. Nonetheless, I would be happy to see them appear in some future revision of iBooks Author, even with all the problems they present in interactive text on a tablet. Why?
For starters, if tiny footnote markers in text act like pebbles in a stream, words that are highlighted by underlines, weight, or color are rather larger pebbles, and even a small embedded graphic marker is visually weightier than a traditional superscript footnote marker.
More importantly, though, the traditional footnote convention makes a rhetorical point: superscripted number markers and on-page notes look serious, much more so than underlined colored text or easy-to-tap Pop-over triggers. They have inherited that seriousness from the thousands upon thousands of books that have used them over the decades. This inherited gravitas is no small thing if it makes the reader have more confidence in a text because it looks scholarly.
Apple could certainly come up with a best-of-both-worlds solution to the use of traditional footnote marks in an interactive text: for example, a numbered footnote mark in a text, along with the word it follows, could be made the trigger of a Pop-over just as readily as an inline graphic. But even if Apple merely implemented the automatic creation of bottom-of-the-page numbered footnotes like other word processors do, that would still address the needs of those authors who want, for stylistic reasons, that traditional annotation apparatus in their interactive Multi-Touch books. Not everything in an interactive book needs to be interactive.
Like many other skeuomorphs, traditional footnotes in a digital text may not be the best interface solution to the problem of annotation, but that does not mean they have no worth. Stylistic messages are messages still, and they can have something worthwhile to convey. That, in itself, is worth considering in a time when many designers and critics have declared total war on skeuomorphism.
With the imminent death of Google Reader, it’s time to fish for a new RSS syncing service or cut bait, so to speak. After 1 July 2013, without a last-minute call from Governor Larry Page, Google is flipping the switch and sending Reader to the land of abandoned Google initiatives.
When Google first announced the death of Reader, we took a look at the field of candidates available at the time, but frankly, it was a field that was dry and barren (see “Explore Alternatives to Google Reader,” 18 March 2013). Fever, a self-hosted solution, isn’t a top priority for its developer, Shaun Inman. Another one of our picks, Netvibes, is in sore need of an update.
The good news is that the developer community has come through, and there are now several compelling alternatives to Google Reader for those who want syncing of RSS subscriptions between devices, though all are far from complete. And our previous favorite, Feedly, even has some new flair to share. I’ve sorted through the competition to find the best choices that work for multiple platforms, have third-party support, and, if possible, follow sustainable business models.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to export your existing Google Reader subscriptions to OPML. All the services we mention here will import Google Reader’s subscriptions.xml file for you, so be sure to hold on to your export until you’re good and settled.
Feedly — When we last checked in on Feedly, it was by far the best alternative to Google Reader: it’s free, multi-platform, and imports directly from your Google Reader account. We also mentioned back then that Feedly was building its own service, dubbed Normandy, to replace Google Reader for syncing. Feedly made good on its word, and as of 19 June, has moved away from Google to its own infrastructure. Congrats to the Feedly team on its prescience and quick action.
Feedly offers clients for the Web and iOS, but if you already have an RSS reader you’ve grown attached to, good news! Feedly has opened up its cloud API to third-party developers. On board are developers of Reeder, Mr. Reader, and Newsify. All apps are scheduled to be updated with Feedly support before the 1 July Google Reader cutoff. (In fact, Mr. Reader was updated on 26 June to support Feedly and other services.) To make Feedly even more attractive, it’s now supported by automation service IFTTT, enabling easy, automatic sharing of content to other services, such as
Twitter, Pocket, and Facebook.
If you don’t care to use a third-party app, then Feedly’s Web and iOS apps offer a number of themes and viewing options to tailor the experience. All three platforms let you view articles as a magazine, as a set of cards, or, for Google Reader refugees, as a list of headlines.
My previous caveat with Feedly was that it didn’t support exporting your feeds. Just in time for the shutdown, they’ve added that capability, so you’re free to move to other services as you like.
While Feedly has added the capability to view your feeds in a browser without a plug-in, there are other gaps to fill. There still isn’t a way to search in feeds and group sharing is still lacking. Those features are on the map for Feedly’s future.
For now, it’s certainly worth creating a Feedly account if you haven’t already done so. It’s free; has third-party syncing support; sports clients for desktop, iPhone, and iPad; and the developers are invested in the product. But I’m going to hold on to my Google Reader export until Feedly develops a concrete business plan.
Feedbin — A paid newcomer to the RSS market, Feedbin offers a simple interface and an API for developers for $3 a month. What I particularly like about Feedbin is that my RSS client of choice, Reeder, already supports it. However, Feedbin support is currently enabled only in the iPhone version of Reeder, with no support yet for the iPad and Mac clients. Luckily, the latest version of Mr. Reader for iPad also now supports Feedbin. Also, ReadKit for Mac has been updated to include Feedbin, among other services.
You can import your Google Reader feeds as OPML, though no direct import of Google Reader is supported. Just choose Settings, then Import/Export.
The Web experience should be familiar to users of Google Reader or Reeder. Feeds are organized as tags (folders) and also listed individually. Buttons in the left-most sidebar let you view all items or only unread items, and let you mark all items as read. New feeds can be added in a box at the top of the page, but there isn’t yet a directory of sites to follow.
Google Reader refugees will be pleased that Feedbin has mimicked all of Google Reader’s keyboard shortcuts, including navigation with J and K. In fact, other than some rendering issues, Feedbin is more attractive than Google Reader’s default interface. And after a recent server upgrade, it’s just as fast.
Viewing the Web interface on the iPad is another matter. It’s essentially a squeezed-down version of the desktop Web app. Touch works well enough, but the content itself gets squished when the iPad is in portrait mode. I recommend spending the extra $3.99 for Mr. Reader over using Feedbin’s Web interface.
Overall, I like Feedbin. The Web app is decent, and it’s already shaping up to have solid third-party support.
Feed Wrangler — Like Feedbin, Feed Wrangler is another paid alternative to Google Reader, with subscriptions costing $19 a year. Unlike with Feedbin, there’s a Feed Wrangler app for iPhone and iPad. Feed Wrangler was created by David Smith, author of Check the Weather, one of my favorite iOS weather apps.
Feed Wrangler takes a unique approach to feed management. There are no folders or tags to categorize feeds. Instead, Feed Wrangler uses what it calls Smart Streams to mash feeds together. Smart Streams are similar to smart playlists in iTunes, a group of feeds defined by search terms and/or by manually including feeds. While it’s powerful, I found clicking small checkboxes to add feeds to be unnecessarily fiddly — it’s easier to drag feeds into a folder. Feed Wrangler didn’t initially import your folders as Smart Streams,
but it now does, making setup much smoother.
Both the Web app and iOS apps are handsomely designed, with simple layouts and a nice selection of fonts. One nice touch is that the iOS apps have built-in support for the 1Password password management app. Even better, in addition to the expected sharing options like Instapaper and Pocket, Feed Wrangler supports sending items to Drafts, where you can manipulate and share content any way you like. However, as the good Dr. Drang points out, the Feed Wrangler app inexplicably supports only one
sharing service at once: Instapaper, Pocket, or Pinboard. If you’re not happy with the provided apps, the good news is that Feed Wrangler has a third-party API, and the developer of Reeder has already said that he will be adding support. The latest version of Mr. Reader for iPad now supports Feed Wrangler, as does ReadKit for Mac.
While I wasn’t crazy about Feed Wrangler at first, it may become my favorite of these services over time. The included apps are basic, but with third-party client support, and a Web app that’s easy on the eyes, Feed Wrangler shows a lot of promise.
NewsBlur — Samuel Clay’s NewsBlur is ostensibly a free service, but if you want to actually use it, you’ll need to shell out $24 a year. The free accounts have a long waiting list, and are limited to only 64 feeds.
Right away, you’ll notice that NewsBlur features a Web interface quite different from the competition. Feeds are grouped into folders, but you can also create subfolders, so you could have a folder labeled Tech, with a subfolder labeled Apple. There are also a number of viewing modes that let you view articles as a list of headlines, browse the text itself, or view the content on the original site.
One of the best features of NewsBlur is that it will report bad RSS feeds and offer methods to fix them. If an exclamation mark shows up next to a feed, that means the feed is broken. Click it, and you’ll be given options to search for a new feed or delete the feed entirely.
NewsBlur also features a filtering option called Intelligence Trainer, where you can tell NewsBlur what you like or dislike about any item in an RSS feed. While I haven’t used it enough to tell if it’s effective, Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter loves it. Alongside that are some interesting social features, such as built-in comments for articles from the NewsBlur community.
While NewsBlur has been well-received by the blog community, I’m just not crazy about it. I find its bevy of options more confusing than empowering. Feed Wrangler, while a pain to set up, offers a lot of power while being simple to use on a daily basis. NewsBlur makes me feel anxious at all the different switches and options, and its filtering options make me paranoid that I’m missing content. If I don’t want to read a feed, I just unsubscribe.
The Rest — Even as I write this, new RSS readers are being developed and released from seemingly every corner of the Internet. Even AOL and Facebook are getting into the game. Here are some of the more interesting highlights.
The Digg team has been working on its own reader, which is now available to everyone on the Web and iOS. The Web and iOS apps are slick, but there are a few problems. Digg Reader can import feeds from your Google Reader account, but there doesn’t appear to be an OPML import yet, nor is there an export. Also, I signed into both the Web and iOS apps from my Google account, but they don’t appear to be syncing with each other.
Despite those problems, the Digg app has become the one I reflexively open when I want to see the latest news. The combination of RSS feeds and Digg’s own curated content is a compelling duo, and I’ll be fascinated to see how Betaworks combines those with Instapaper (Digg owner Betaworks purchased Instapaper in April 2013; see “Betaworks Takes over Instapaper,” 25 April 2013). One feature that has me even more fascinated is that the Digg iOS app can adjust its theme based on room
lighting, a feature that Instapaper creator Marco Arment previously said was impossible with Apple’s restrictions.
Will iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 Mavericks eliminate the need for RSS entirely? A new feature coming to Safari’s reading list is Shared Links, which extracts every tweet from your Twitter timeline that features a link. If you’re a power user who wants to go down this route, there’s a Launch Center Pro action to create custom Tweetbot searches to include just the news
sources you choose.
The team at Black Pixel has released the beta for NetNewsWire 4 for Mac, which has been rebuilt to no longer use Google Reader for syncing. The bad news is that there’s no longer any syncing at all, and the iOS apps have been pulled from the App Store while Black Pixel rewrites them for iOS 7. However, the beta is free, imports from Google Reader, and is super fast. The app will cost $20 on release, but you can currently pre-order it for $10. While not a good solution for now, it has a lot of promise, so I’ll be keeping an eye on it.
Our Advice — Average users will be happy with Feedly, as it’s free, has good cross-platform support, and should have support from a slew of third-party readers in the future. While Feedly is set to become the 800-pound gorilla of feed readers, I would suggest keeping an export of your Google Reader subscriptions just in case.
I’m leery of Feedly due to its lack of a coherent business model. If that’s important to you, Feedbin, NewsBlur, and Feed Wrangler are worth the price of admission. Which you choose is a matter of taste. Feedbin comes closest to the Google Reader experience and is supported by Reeder on iPhone, Mr. Reader on iPad, and ReadKit for Mac. NewsBlur features native apps for all three platforms and powerful filtering features, but no third-party iOS support yet. Like Feedbin, Feed Wrangler has native apps on all three platforms, and I really like its iOS apps.
Personally, I think I’ll be switching to Feedbin full time. It has easy setup, a familiar interface, native apps for all three Apple platforms, and a sustainable business model. Plus, the developer, Ben Ubois, is friendly and responsive. (And a big fan of TidBITS — I love to support our developer-readers!) However, with its recent price increase from $2 to $3 a month and the fact that Feed Wrangler now imports your folders, it’s a less-attractive option now.
I’d like to take a moment to congratulate the developer of Mr. Reader for iPad, who rushed to add support for Feedly, Feedbin, Fever, and Feed Wrangler. That level of support alone should be worth the $3.99 price. Along the same lines, I’d like to also cheer the developer of ReadKit for Mac. With support for NewsBlur, Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, Fever, and even Pocket and Instapaper, it’s shaping up to become a must-have reading app for the Mac.
On the other hand, I’m disappointed in Reeder. The iPhone version has been updated to support Feedbin and Fever, with other services coming very soon, but the iPad and Mac apps will not be updated prior to the 1 July shutdown, and will be pulled from the App Store. Also, all three versions are now free, making me wonder whether the developer, Silvio Rizzi, is sufficiently interested in continued development.
Of course, there are many, many more alternatives out there. I focused on those with the best multi-platform support for now. If you’d like to see the rest of the field, check out ReplaceReader, which lists all of the alternatives, and ranks them by number of Twitter mentions.
Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders by Atypical Games puts you in the cockpits of World War II fighter planes in both single-player campaigns and multiplayer action. I often saw it near the top of the App Store lists earlier in 2013, but was leery due to my traumatic childhood experiences with Top Gun for the NES. However, after Storm Raiders won an Apple Design Award at WWDC (see “Apple Announces 2013 Apple Design Award Winners,” 13 June 2013), I had to check it out. The game costs $4.99 for either the Mac or iOS versions, but I purchased both on sale for $0.99 each. (The iOS version requires only iOS 5 or later, so it runs on devices back to the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch.) Other than controls, the game is identical on both platforms.
When I first launched the game, I imagined that with this being an App Store game, the controls would be dumbed down. Not so. While there is a casual control option, Storm Raiders gives you full control over throttle, pitch, and yaw. The game puts you through six training missions to make sure you have the basics. Once you get the hang of them, you’ll be doing loops in no time. The iOS version depends on the built-in gyroscope for many of the plane’s controls, which can be awkward at times, but is overall smoother than the Mac version’s use of the keyboard. However, the Mac version supports gamepads, joysticks, and even trackpads so you have a lot of control options.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that the graphics are gorgeous. Storm Raiders would be at home on any current-generation game console. Despite that, the game performs smoothly on my 2011 MacBook Pro, even while hooked up to a 27-inch monitor. Gameplay seems just as smooth on my aging iPad 2.
But Storm Raiders is more than just a pretty face — it’s packed with content. The game features two single-player campaigns: the Battle of Britain and the Asia-Pacific front, each with six missions. The campaigns will have you dogfighting Messerschmitts, bombing Nazi bases, escorting planes, defending London from bombers, and even protecting Pearl Harbor from kamikaze pilots. The Pearl Harbor mission is particularly harrowing. If you’re a WWII history buff, the campaigns are a lot of fun.
One of the more impressive control aspects in the campaign is how you manage your squadron. Clicking or tapping a single button makes them fly in formation, defend your plane, or engage enemy pilots independently. Controlling AI teammates can be one of the most frustrating aspects of many video games, but Storm Raiders nails it. The AI of the enemy pilots is equally impressive and will put your flying skills to the test.
Another interface element that impressed me is the bar that appears under the exposition text at the start of each level. It appears and then shrinks down to indicate how much longer that particular blurb of text will remain on the screen. I love that attention to detail. Of course, you can fast-forward though these scenes.
If you blow through the campaign, or just get bored, there are plenty of other single-player options, including survival mode, dogfights, and even a free flight mode. However, in the Mac version, I had trouble scrolling the list of levels for the free flight mode, which is the only major bug I encountered in the game.
Storm Raiders also lets you unlock a number of additional planes and weapons to add to the replay value and to use in multiplayer games, though some require in-app purchases. I’m not a fan of in-app purchases, but that seems to be the way the game industry is moving.
The game offers just as many multiplayer options, including free-for-all deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and defending bases. You can jump into a game quickly with up to eight players with Quick Play, challenge local friends over Wi-Fi, or even play through Game Center. The online play is great, and I never had trouble finding a game. What’s awesome about the Wi-Fi option is that iOS and Mac players can play against each other, making it a great choice for parties.
Disappointingly, game progress doesn’t seem to sync between the iOS and Mac versions. Otherwise, Storm Raiders makes good use of Apple technologies like iCloud syncing of game progress in the iOS version, Game Center for multiplayer support, trackpad-based controls, and AirPlay for putting it on the big screen.
Overall, Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders is a lot of fun. It brings console-quality gaming to the Mac and iOS, while taking full advantage of both platforms’ capabilities and offering a lot of game modes for playing on your own and with friends. If you’re tired of the endless barrage of Call of Duty clones, or just want a quality action game for your Apple device, then Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders is worth the cost of admission.
Transmit 4.4 — While not chock full of changes, Panic’s update to version 4.4 of its Transmit file transfer program adds welcome improved support for Amazon S3-compatible servers via an editable Server field, which can now be modified for non-Amazon S3-compatible servers. The release also fixes a bug that prevented connections to some SharePoint servers via WebDAV. ($34 new from Panic and the Mac App Store, free update, 29.4 MB, release notes)
Read/post comments about Transmit 4.4.
PopChar X 6.3 — Ergonis Software has released PopChar X 6.3, adding a clickable link to the Font Info view that opens the font’s storage location. If you have multiple versions of a font on your system, the font discovery utility will now tell you which version is currently in use. The update also improves the way PopChar X handles transient clipboard contents for better compatibility with clipboard utilities, enhances the reaction speed and reliability when available fonts are changed, and fixes a bug that blocked certain menus after clicking the menu bar icon. Ergonis has also made a few user interface tweaks,
enabling you to dismiss the PopChar X window with the Escape key, ensuring the assigned hotkey correctly closes the window, and fixing the window position when the window header is offscreen after the app is first opened. (€29.99 new with a 25-percent discount for TidBITS members, free update, 3.7 MB, release notes)
Read/post comments about PopChar X 6.3.
We’re in the midst of the summer doldrums, so we have only a couple of ExtraBITS for you this week: a free iPhone repair kit and some thoughts on how Apple’s tight integration will make iOS 7 a tough look to copy.
Liberate Your iPhone With a Free Repair Kit from iFixit — To celebrate Independence Day in the United States, the folks at iFixit are offering free “iPhone Liberation Kits” from 1 July until 5 July. The kits, which are being offered for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, include all the tools needed to replace Apple’s proprietary pentalobe screws with standard Phillips screws. iFixit offered free shipping to the first 1,776 people who ordered, but they quickly sold those, so now you’ll have to pay $5 shipping per order.
Apple’s Integration Makes iOS 7 Hard to Imitate — Since the debut of the iPhone, everyone from competing smartphone makers to Web developers has wanted to copy its onscreen aesthetics. But developer Marco Arment argues that the forthcoming iOS 7 leverages Apple’s hardware in such a way as to make it tough to copy. Specifically, he notes that since much of iOS 7’s interface is dependent on the powerful graphics processors and high-resolution screens in iOS devices, it will be difficult to imitate on competing platforms with weaker specs.