Picks Roundup

We are already a third of the way through 2014 and so far we’ve had some great picks on the podcast…but no posts to show for it. So here’s a roundup of the picks that have featured on the 2014 shows – enjoy!

Wordiest for Android
– Android
– Free
– A great word game that unlike so many games is for Android only. You are given 14 letter tiles and the aim is to form two words that score the highest amount of points possible. The twist is that your score is then compared with another 100 players who are given the same starting tiles. Addictive and easy to understand but hard to consistently score high points. Integrates nicely with Google+ to show you competitors and leaderboards. Still one of my favourite word games on any platform.

The Stanley Parable
– Mac, PC
– £9.99
– The Stanley Parable is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end. I don’t really want to say anymore than that. Chris recommended this game and it really will spoil it if you read about it online without actually playing it first. Just buy it – it’s a bargain at £9.99.

Stockfish for Mac
– Mac
– Free
– I took a bit of stick from Chris with this one. It’s a chess game. It supports two players – not my best sell. But it’s a free good looking chess app with a powerful analysis engine behind it so for chess lovers it’s a great client to have installed on your Mac.


– Android, iOS
– £1.49
– A game of pattern matching, 1+2 makes 3, 3+3 makes 6, 6+6 makes 12 and so on. A simple grid and tiles dropping in under your control soon makes for a maddeningly addictive game that is anything but simple. At first random progress soon leads to strategic thoughts about how to build a good high score. I was pleased with just over 3000 in the first 24 hours but was soon blown away with tweets of “just got 21000 in Threes!”. Swines – a must buy for any puzzlers out there.

Yahoo News Digest
Yahoo News Digest
– iOS
– Free
– Yahoo bought Summly in 2013 and a few months later launched Yahoo News Digest for iOS which twice a day sends you the top news stories (08:00 and 18:00) for you to browse through on your iPhone. Each news item has images, a good summary of the detail you need to understand the story and links to related content if a story grabs your attention. Later updates now preload the content in the background so the full stories are available as soon as you open the app. A really handy news app that I’m using pretty much daily.

Todoist Karma
Todoist Karma
– Desktop (Mac, Windows, Chrome, Firefox, Outlook), Mobile (iOS, Android) and the web
– Free, Premium is £18
– I switched to Todoist after trying a number of different todo management tools. Omnifocus is full featured but overly slow on iOS and expensive to buy across all platforms. Reminders on iOS works to a fashion but is missing some key features and I found it’s sync via iCloud failing more than once. I stumbled on Todoist and it’s a perfect todo manager for me. First of all I can access my todo’s anywhere. On the web, on iOS or Android or any number of desktop clients across all the platforms. Secondly, the sync works extremely well and quickly too. In three months of usage I’ve had zero issues with sync which gives me confidence to recommend to others. Thirdly, the free version gives enough options to most users so that this is all they will need. You can create todo’s, projects and sub todo’s and projects with colour coding against each to help you spot what you need to do and where. You also get the ability to add priorities and labels to give you basic GTD support. Premium adds the ability to add todo notes and reminders which I find invaluable. You also get productivity tracking via Karma points which I dismissed at first but it does give you motivation to get on and complete tasks and also see how productive you’ve been over time. I can’t recommend Todoist enough – my most used new app of the year.

– Hardware
– £30
– Chromecast is the second attempt from Google to deliver a streaming TV device after their previous offerings crashed and burned. The size of a slightly large USB key, the Chromecast plugs into an empty HDMI slot on your TV and once setup (takes a few minutes) allows you to cast video and music from your Android or iOS device or from Chrome browser. Unlike Airplay, it’s not playing content from the mobile device, instead the streaming details are sent for the film or audio you are viewing and it resumes streaming from the internet. I’ve found it to be simple and reliable since picking one up when it finally hit the UK. Also, you can use Plex to play local media so it’s not just about streaming. At £30, it’s hard to go wrong and turn any TV into a smart TV.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

Monument Valley
– iOS now, Android soon
– £2.49
– An elegant and beautiful game for iOS and soon to be Android. This is a 10 level puzzle game that is more akin to a living M.C. Escher image than a game. The premise is simple – guide Ida to the end of the level by sliding and rotating elements of the level to allow her to complete the path. It looks and sounds stunning and is such a satisfying fun game. In many ways the length is perfect as repetition is removed unlike so many games that are longer just because they can be, not for any good reason. More levels are coming but if you only buy one iOS game this year, make it Monument Valley.

Hitman Go
– iOS now, Android soon
– £2.99
– I had zero expectations for Hitman Go, expecting an arcade game or first person shooter but what Square Enix has released is a great looking turn based strategy. You control your agent, dictating which path he takes through a level solving various puzzles as you go. The game is a looker and can be viewed from any angle and it’s great to see some of the big game developers developing unique mobile games rather than rushing out a crappy port. One note of caution is that there is an element of in app purchasing for hints and unlocks but they aren’t needed to play the game and it doesn’t get in the way when I’m playing. An impressive game which will take some time to complete.

So hopefully out of those 9 picks there is something that you will like. It’s been a good year so far for app’s and games – here’s to more great picks through the rest of 2014.


The latest iTunes updates finally forced me to look for alternatives for managing podcasts. In many ways podcast playback across all devices is in pretty rude health. Although Apple’s iTunes and their Podcasts app is still the most popular method for many there are great client choices including Pocket Casts, Downcast and Instacast. The genre is soon to hot up too with Marco Arment announcing Overcast coming soon to iOS. I consume podcasts on my Mac and iOS devices so I was looking for clients that also had a Mac client and sync’d playback between iOS and Mac. That limited my choice down to Instacast and Downcast and after comparing features I settled on Instacast and I couldn’t be happier.

Instacast 4 on the iPad
Instacast 4 on the iPad

Instacast 4 is a brand new version for iOS 7. It’s been updated to fit in better with the new look and feel in iOS 7 and in general Vemedio has done a great job. Controls are clear and easy to use and on the iPad there is a new sidebar that has been added which makes it easy to switch between current subscriptions, smart lists that you have created and the directory where you can search and subscribe to new podcasts. By moving to iOS7 only, the developers have now been able to take advantage of background downloading. This means that subscriptions are refreshed when the device is idle and I’ve found that instead of having to sync my devices with iTunes on the Mac I always have the latest podcasts downloaded in the morning when I get to work – really nice feature.

Instacast Playback Controls
Instacast Playback Controls

Playback controls are clear and easy to understand and one nice feature are the playback controls will colour according to the podcast album artwork. It’s a nice touch….and I need to get going on an album art update for DigitalOutbox! Instacast supports Airplay and allows you to set playback speed, from 0.5x to 1.5x, 2x and the ridiculous 3x. I do set a couple of podcasts to 1.5x just to skip through them a bit quicker so it’s nice to see this in Instacast. You can set a sleep timer although this is a bit clumsy to use, cycling through the various options one click at a time but once you are used to the options it’s easy enough. You can also add bookmarks to podcasts and easily share the current episode to a variety of social media networks or via e-mail. Show notes and bookmarks are displayed making it easy to jump through links mentioned in a podcast. I’d have liked to have seen more options when clicking on a link in the show notes though – send to Pocket, Instapaper, Pinboard are noticeable misses that I’d like to see added in a future update.

One feature I really like is Now Playing. As you navigate around the app the currently playing Podcast is listed at the bottom of the app and just one click away from restarting or cancelling. Very handy.

Instacast Mac
Instacast Mac

Instacast on the Mac is a simple client giving you access to all the features in the iOS client, and iTunes, but importantly it’s been faster and easier to use than iTunes in my experience. Instacast will check periodically and download new episodes automatically and it allows you to set storage limits if you subscribe to a lot of podcasts but are tight on space.

Instacast Cloud is the glue that melds the various clients. This free service will ensure that all your Instacast subscriptions and settings are in sync across your devices. The most obvious benefit of Instacast Cloud is that playback positions are synchronised across Mac and iOS but in addition the following is also sync’d – subscriptions, deleted episodes, played and unplayed states, playback position, favorites, lists and bookmarks. Phew. I’ve found the sync to be fast and reliable although the service did have some downtime this week due to a backup failure.

Instacast subscription options
Instacast subscription options

One issue I did stumble on with the cloud synchronisation was with downloads on the iPhone and iPad. Maybe I’m a bit weird, but I like to keep audio podcasts on the iPhone and video podcasts on the iPad. This was easy to achieve with iTunes but as soon as I signed up with Cloud sync on Instacast both audio and video podcasts were downloading to both. You can set download options on a per subscription basis but these are then kept in sync across iOS devices. Nggghhhhhh. Not a show stopper but I found it annoying. However you can set offline storage options that are per device and not synchronised over the cloud. So setting ‘auto-download content’ to Audio Content on the iPhone and Video Content on the iPad solved the problem.

Overall I’m really happy with Instacast and although the applications aren’t free it’s a much better solution than iTunes and one I wish I’d moved to a lot sooner. If you are interested in keeping iOS and Android devices in sync then Pocket Casts is the best option although it too has been updated for iOS 7 and is a little buggy at the moment. Either way, please look beyond iTunes and Podcasts app as there are some great app’s out there that really enhance podcast playback.

Sticky Notifications

It’s 2012 yet how many of you still have them? How many monitors have a few dotted around them? Bloody post-it notes. Stop it. Stop using them and instead buy Sticky Notifications for the Mac. This simple app that only costs $3 allows you to create a reminder that will stay displayed on the screen until dismissed.

Running from the menubar or called up via a recordable shortcut you are given a simple form for leaving a reminder.

Sticky Notification

Once the reminder is created it will then be displayed on the notification tool of your choice. In Mountain Lion it will be displayed using Notification Center or Growl, under Lion you only get Growl as a choice. Either way the notification will stay on display until it’s dismissed.

No excuse now

There’s a couple of nice features that help make the app easy to use. Even though it’s been out for less than a fortnight it has had three updates which has added a System Service which makes it easy to create a Sticky Notification from any selected text. You can also create a notification via the app’s own URL scheme. This makes creating a sticky from Alfred simple to do. Final neat feature is that if the note contains a URL, clicking anywhere on the reminder will launch the URL in the default browser. Perfect for those times when you need to visit a website but are in the middle of something else.

The app can be bought on the Mac App Store or on the Instinctive Code website and I’d recommend buying direct. The App Store version has only just appeared at version 1.0. The developer, Matt Gemmell, has released three updates since the initial release meaning the App store version is missing a few features. This isn’t the developers fault but does highlight one of the many issues with buying via the App Store.

I also have to recommend subscribing to the personal blog of Matt Gemmell – it’s a must read if you are a developer, designer or just interested in the tech community. Well written posts with a healthy dose of humour.

Mac Bundles

We highlighted a couple of Mac Bundles on the podcast this week and as they are available for a limited time only I thought it best to get a quick post on what I think are the stand out items from each.

First up is the MacUpdate June bundle which features 11 apps for $49.99. Standout applications in this bundle are Parallels Desktop 7, ScreenFlow 3, BusyCal and Civilization V. The links above are affiliate links so buying via that link will give DigitalOutbox a small kickback as well which helps cover the cost of running the podcast and website. Overall you save $400 when comparing the bundle and individual application price so it’s a great offer but it only has another 12 days to run so get moving.

If you want to run a virtual machine on your Mac, Parallels Desktop 7 is one of the premier titles that will allow you to run Windows and Mac titles side by side without restarting your operating system. ScreenFlow is a great screen video capture tool and in my opinion the best available on the Mac. You can easily capture your screen content as well as that from the camera, mic and any other sound input. It’s easy to create a full screencast and then output the video to a variety of formats. If you are in the market for either Parallels or ScreenFlow it’s better to buy them via the bundle deal as it will save you money on just the single title.

Civilization V needs little introduction. It’s the latest version of the famous Sid Meier game and has garnered great reviews over the last year. The final title I’d highlight is BusyCal, a great calendar replacement that means you no longer need to look at the faux leather and paper tear off look that Apple introduced with Lion but also benefits from a number of advanced features not seen in the default Calendar app on OSX. BusyCal is only available to the first 15,000 bundle purchases and with 12,000 already sold there’s not much time left to purchase.

The second bundle worth highlighting is from ProductiveMacs. Similar to the MacUpdate bundle, this time it’s $39.999 for eight applications. The highlights in this bundle are RapidWeaver, DEVONthink, Printopia and Mailtags. Again the link above is an affiliate link so if you are interested in buying, please use the link above. Also a big thanks to Tam for pointing out this bundle. This bundle has slightly less time to run with only 10 days remaining.

RapidWeaver is an easy to use tool for creating and publishing websites. It follows web standards, has good plugin and theme support and makes building a website as easy as creating a document. DEVONthink Personal is a digital filing cabinet. Store anything in DEVONthink from a variety of different sources with good search and export options. If you were considering either of these applications, buying via he bundle will save you some cash while delivering another 7 titles.

Printopia makes it easy to rint from your iOS device to any printer. It also allows you to print to a PDF or Evernote via your iOS device. Finally MailTags is great for those that get lots of e-mail. It allows you to tag your mail via a variety of extra metadata to help you sort, retrieve and stay on top of mail. Very handy.

Hopefully you’ll find something to like in one of these bundles while saving a bit of cash and introducing some extra tools.


Pebble is an e-paper watch that supports iPhone and Android. It launched on Kickstarter this week looking for $100,000 by May 19th to enable them to produce the wacth. As I write this they currently have $2.8 million pledged with 33 days to go. Two days ago they had raised $1 million in 28 hours. To say this is poplar is an understatement. But what does it do?

The specs are fairly limited – a 1.26-inch 144×168-pixel black and white e-paper display with backlight, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, four buttons, a vibrating motor and a three-axis accelerometer. However the clever part of this watch is the iPhone and Android support. Get notifications from your phone on your wrist, control music via the watch and see at a glance your running or cycling pace without reaching for your phone.

The low spec’s also give the Pebble a planned battery life of seven days. There will be app’s that work alongside Pebble and a Pebble app for iOS or Android that allows you to pick from a huge range of watch faces. This is picking up from the iPod Nano watch craze and taking it to another level. There will be an SDK available prior to launch so developers can look to take full advantage of the Pebble prior to launch and there was (it’s sold out!) a hackers special option on Kickstarter that gave you a Pebble in August ahead of users so you can start to develop for it early. There has also been an announcement that the Pebble will now be waterproof rather than splashproof which is great.

Prices start at $115 plus $15 for international sipping. I think thats a bargain for the Pebble but as Chris pointed out in the podcast it is a luxury – how hard is it to look at your phone? The geek in me loves it though so I’m looking forward to my Pebble shipping later this year.

Hero Academy

My pick this week is Hero Academy from Robot Entertainment, a light weight alternative to chess with great graphics and some strategic depth that isn’t obvious on your first few games. It is a universal app for iOS only and is free with in-app purchases to allow you to play with other teams within the game.

Hero Academy - I'm in trouble!

The aim of the game is to destroy your opponents crystals or knock out all of your opponents team. The game is entirely multiplayer against friends or randoms. Each player has a round, with a round made up of five turns. In that turn you can deploy units, move units, upgrade or heal units or attack your opponents. The game will randomly give you units and upgrades which you can place on the board, upgrade, use to heal your troops or hurt the enemy or alternatively swap out for another random unit.

There are a number of board layouts and there are some strategic tiles on the board which can really turn the game if used correctly. Stand on the crystal to weaken your opponents crystal, stand on the sword or shield to increase your defence or attack power. One critiscism with Hero Academy is at first it can feel like much of the game is hidden from you – what does this character do, how best to use them etc but play the game more and you will unlock it’s secrets. It’s a shame there isn’t a single player game as I found my first few games were mostly me being the whipping boy – think Call of Duty if you start playing a couple of weeks after everybody has started and your weapons suck and you don’t know the maps – Hero Academy can feel like that at first but stick with it.

To Help this, Robot Entertainment have put together a Hero Academy game guide thats well worth reading. Alternatively the staff at Tap magazine uploaded a good strategy guide video thats worth watching (embedded below).

As I’ve said, Hero Academy is free to play but only comes with the Council team playable. There are another three teams that you have to pay to unlock (£1.49 per team) and I was worried at first that the teams had purely cosmetic differences but each teams has different units and strengths/weaknesses so it extends the gameplay massively.

Hero Academy - In App Purchases

I’d suggest though sticking with the free Council team initially and once you understand how best to play with Council then move on and purchase a new team. One negative with Hero Academy though is that it is fairly aggressive serving out advert’s. These disappear with one in-app purchase so it might be worth your while buying a new team just to kill the ad’s – that’s what I did. It’s also worth noting that the in-app purchases don’t make it easier to win or play – a good move by the developers as I hate games that give you pay options to make it easier especially

Great audio and graphics coupled with hidden depth makes for a really fun game. The latest update also made Hero Academy a universal app so full support for the iPad is now included. Well worth playing but don’t blame me when Hero Academy starts eating up all your spare time.


F.lux is an app for Windows, Mac and Linux that does a simple but important task – it help’s your eyes. Many modern displays are bright but you don’t really notice how bright they are during the day partly as they’ve been designed to operate well in those brighter conditions. At night it’s a different story and the brightness can really strain your eye’s if your not careful.

The shot above is from my current Mac desktop. It’s fine during the day but the whites at night even with lights on are bright. This is where f.lux helps. It sits quietly in the background and will set the colour temperature of your screen to match your lights. It detects your location and will automatically switch to the new colour temperature at the right time.

At first it feels strange when you see the colour temperature changing but I find it really eases the strain on my eyes although I will admit it does look odd when you see the screenshot above of f.lux in aciton. You can easily switch to different temperatures to match your environment and I also set f.lux to dim gradually over an hour. Makes a big difference to the effectiveness in my opinion. Finally there is an option to temporarily disable f.lux to allow you to work on any graphics or photography too.

A handy free utility that isn’t new but will be a must install on any future computers I own.

Instant Heart Rate

When I first saw this app I dismissed it as a gimmick. Some of the reviews on the app store said as much – rubbish, it doesn’t work, con artist – blah, blah, blah. Thanks to Shakeel though I downloaded the app for my iPhone and what do you know – it works!

Instant Heart Rate for iPhone (and also Android devices) is a £0.59 app that measures your heart rate. It does this via the iphone’s camera – thats the bit that initially put me off the app. How would the camera detect heart rate? Well, by enabling the flash the camera can detect your heartbeat by the colour variation as the blood flows through your fingers. Fire up the application, click on measure and the flash is enabled. Place your finger over the camera lens and wait a few seconds for the app to settle and start detecting. It will then measure for a few seconds and start displaying your heartbeat. Once measuring accurately you can then store your heartbeat and a simple graph over time will show your measurements. The hastily shot video below shows how quickly it measures your heart rate.

I was still a bit sceptical but a few other tests after badminton and cycling confirmed it’s accuracy, tying up exactly with the heart rate monitor on my bike. As well as measuring heart rates, the app will also measure your heart rate recovery. The app will measure your rate for 60 seconds after exercise and this can be used as a simple measure of how fit your heart is. Again the app will chart your heart rate recovery over time so if you’ve made a New Years resolution and fitness is a new goal this should give you a way of measuring progress over the year.

Couple of updates from after the podcast. The app doesn’t work on the iPhone 3G but does on the 3GS although it needs a lot of light to accurately detect your heartbeat. Secondly, the app is also available for Android devices but I’m not sure on pricing or which devices are supported.

A very simple app but great value for £0.59 and definitely an app that impresses people when they see it in action.

Alfred for Mac

Alfred for Mac has been available for nearly a year but I only recently tried it via the Mac App Store. It’s a productivity tool in the mould of the much loved Quicksilver and more recently Launchbar. Alfred can be used to quickly launch any application, find documents on your computer or quickly launch web shortcuts plus a whole lot more.

Alfred is still called a beta but it’s been rock solid so far in my usage. Downloading the free version from the App Store brings with it a host of functionality. Alfred is called via a keyboard shortcut which can be chosen by the user. I always use cmd+space for my launcher applications. So typing cmd+space opens the Alfred window and from there I can search for applications and files on my local machine or on the web. For example, type 1p and Alfred will start to list files matching the text 1p. As I’ve launched 1Password before, Alfred will present that as my favourite result.

If I don’t want to launch 1Password I can tap down through the returned results via he arrow keys or I can use cmd+number to open another file, contact etc. This allows for very quick searching and launching of applications and files. On a file or contact returned in Alfred I can press the right arrow key to conduct a series of actions – launch file, mail file, delete file etc. Alfred will never replace the finder for me but for seeking out a file to edit or mail on to a friend it’s far quicker than the default Mac tools. The free tool also comes with a calculator and spell checker as well as a variety of built in web searches. Type google searchterm and a Google search will be run for the given searchterm, opening in a new tab in your default browser. Custom searches can also be added so it’s easy to add a shortcut for Bing Images for example. As a free tool it’s great but there’s also a paid option for Alfred – the Alfred Powerpack.

The powerpack isn’t available via the App store as in app purchasing isn’t supported yet. Instead, buy the powerpack from the Alfred website for £12 and you unlock a far more feature rich tool. Fallback searching (if nothing is found then search via Google) is added plus the ability to e-mail form Alfred. However the bigger additions are iTunes and Clipboard extensions.

An iTunes mini player allows you to search and control iTunes not only selecting music and the usual play/pause controls but also rate music as well. A more useful feature is Clipboard History and Snippets. Launched via a separate shortcut or by typing snip within Alfred, the snippets extension will show you your clipboard history allowing you to easily copy old clipboard entries to application. Snippets allow you to setup a library of snippets for commonly entered text. I find that really useful for the podcast – I have path entries, twitter text, iTunes boilerplate text entered as snippets so I can paste them in when required.

Alfred is not only a very functional app but looks good with it as well. The original Quicksilver always looked great and although Launchbar is functionally more rich that both Quicksilver and Alfred, I find the performance of Alfred coupled with the better design to be much better (might be due to size of Launchbar index over time). If you already have Launchbar then the extra cost of paying for Alfred can’t be justified but if you’ve not tried a keyboard driven launcher before then fire up the App Store and try the free version of Alfred. I’m pretty confident that after a few days you’ll be paying for the powerpack version as the time saved over a few weeks is worth far more than £12.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great tool for landscape photographers. Using the tool you can pick a location anywhere in the world and work out not only the sunrise and sunset times but also the angle of the sunrise/sunset so if your wanting to plan a sunrise across a river or a mountain range you can work out the best time of year to do the shot.

Photographer’s Ephemeris is free and is an Adobe Air application so is multi platform. It’s easy to install and use and the results are great. Alongside the Air application a version has been written for iOS devices. This however is not free, currently retailing for £5.49 in the UK. This version is iPhone only at the moment but an update is coming which will move the application to being universal with iPad support.

The application is similar to the desktop version but I find it easier to use via the touch interface. Like the desktop version moonrise and moonset angles/times are also included alongside the ability to find out when the sun will appear from behind a hill – ideal for scouting out locations prior to a shoot.

It’s app’s like these that I find so compelling on mobile devices. Focussed, simple to use but very helpful.