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Wednesday
Jul182012

HeyTell

Looking for a quick way to send a message to someone? HeyTell can do it for you.

This app holds the coveted position one on page one of my iPhone. Okay so app devs the world over may not be coveting this particular spot on my particular iPhone but I don't give it up lightly.

Rather then sending someone an SMS you can just send a voice message. It basically turns your phone into a walkie talkie. There are a number of apps like this but this is my favourite because it lets you send these messages really simply.Open the app, select the contact and then just hold your finger on the button and release when your finished talking. Lots of users probably just have one or two people that they will message all the time. So in a lot of cases you don't even need to select a contact because the last person you messaged is selected by default. The person you message will get a push notification. When they open the app, the message will start playing straight away with no further user actions required.

What I am trying to say is that this app more than any other of this style of app that I have tried gets out of the way and just lets you communicate with the person you wan to. It is much easier and quicker then sending an SMS. Plus it's free and cross platform, IOS and Android. It's an IOS app, not just for your iPhone, so you can use it on an iPod touch or iPad as well.

Other Stuff

There is more you can do with the app and there's a few in-app purchases you can buy. What I have described above is the core functionality and it's free. For free you can also send the recorded voice messages to Twitter, Facebook or as a link in an SMS or email.

The app can show your position on a map to the person you are talking to. of course, you get to choose whether this happens or not. As a blind user this really doesn't do much for me :) and I almost forgot to mention it all.

If you want to support the developers by sending them a couple of bucks, you can buy a group messaging option which lets you send the 'HeyTell' to up to 25 contacts at once.

Or one that I have actually purchased is 25 ring tones. One of the problems I was having with the app was that I sometimes wouldn't notice the push notification come through. If I checked my phone later there would be a number on the badge icon to let me know but this might not be for a while. Clearly this is not the apps problem but mine, either way the ringtones help. They let you set a different sound to each contact and some of them are a lot longer in length then the standard alert sound, so a lot more noticeable.

You can also purchase configurable message wipe, a voice changer which lets you auto tune or sound like a robot and some decorations for your name. Don't ask me why you'd want this last one but there you go.

There are three levels of privacy you can choose from. There is no need to create an account to start using the app you just need to select yourself out of your contacts. Dependant upon the privacy setting your friends have selected and how you have them setup in your phone's contacts, it may be tricky to initially find them but you can send a SMS or email invite from the app and the problem is solved. You can also link your Facebook and Twitter profiles to make finding friends that much easier.

Like all the best apps IMO, it is fully accessible with Voice Over. VO is the built in screen reader for the blind and vision impaired.

Saturday
May262012

The App Switcher

App Switcher Basics

This week we are looking into a feature of IOS rather then an application. We are taking a quick look at the Application Switcher. You can bring it up by double pressing your home button. It holds a list of your most recently used apps. These apps are not actually running in the background, well not usually.

Apple in there infinite wisdom have chosen not to burden us with too much information. The app switcher is supposed to be exactly what it is called. It is a way of quickly jumping between your most frequently used apps. You can't tell whether an app that is in the switcher is actually doing anything in the background or not.

A Closer Look

Those who are a little familiar with computers are comfortable with the notion of a task manager and we hear that IOS has multi tasking. When you bring up the app switcher it is normal to put two and two together and, in this case get five. It has some similarities to a task manager but if you thought of the app switcher like this you would be going down the wrong path.

You'd be better to think of it as nothing more then a list of shortcuts to your most recently used apps. There are a few exceptions but an app in the app switcher is not doing anything in the background, that is it is not using valuable processor cycles and chewing up your battery or slowing down your phone. It may be using a little bit of your phones RAM though. When you close an app, the app has a few seconds to sort it's self out so to speak. It can hold it's state in RAM so that if you go back to the app it is able to take you back to where you left off quickly as though it was running in the background the whole time.

As you open and close different apps more and more of the RAM will be holding states of various apps. This also is not a bad thing. There is really no point in having valuable RAM sitting around doing nothing. Most of the RAM should be earning it's place most of the time. If an app that is being used in the foreground needs some additional RAM space, the OS frees it up by allocating the space being used by the least recently used app. So after a while if you never clear out your app switcher you'll have apps there that aren't even using any RAM.

The long and short of all this is that having apps in the app switcher means little more then you've opened the app. It does not mean that it is chewing up valuable resources.

Some Still Run

As I said there are a few exceptions. Some classes of apps are able to continue to "run" in the background and there removal from the switcher could improve your phones performance. VOIP apps are one such example. GPS, streaming and apps downloading all fall into this category. At least to some degree or another. An app like Downcast will be able to continue to download your podcasts in the background for a certain amount of time. After a few minutes of being away from the forefront the OS will force the app to quit whether it is finished downloading your podcasts or not.

An app like Navigon is allowed to continue to run in the background for as long as it is taking you somewhere. A GPS app that forgets to take you off at the third exit of the next roundabout because you had a phone call come in wouldn't be much use to anyone. Of course you wouldn't have taken the call but you don't want the app to stop monitoring where you are just because you switched to another app.

Killing Apps

IOS does a good job of managing all this but occasionally an app won't give up it's memory or doesn't quit like it should or, well, something goes wrong. You may find an app crashes and won't play nicely when you go back to it. It's time like these that it can be a good idea to remove it from the app switcher. This gets rid of the stored state and lets you start again with the app. Also there's something gratifying that we've all learnt from years of using Windows about going through that app switcher and clearing everything out. Most of the time it won't do all that much for the battery life or performance of our phones but it sure will feel good.

Now finally to the how to bit. You just need to press and hold an app in the app switcher and yo will see it jiggling. The little delete thingy will come up and you can just delete it. You can continue to delete apps till all the pages of apps are gone.

A Few Other Things

The app switcher also lets you get to your media controls. When you bring it up with a double tap of the home button, swipe to the right. You'll pull over the play,next and previous track buttons, etc. You'll also find controls including the lock rotation switch. This is a very handy one for me.

The iPad has a few extra gestures which aren't available on the iPhone. You can do a four finger swipe up to bring up the app switcher rather then the double tap. Also, whilst in an app you can do a four finger swipe to the side to switch between apps.

All of this is also perfectly accessible with Voice Over, the built in screen reader for the blind and visually impaired. From in the app switcher VO users need to double tap and hold, VO will say "editing apps" and you can double tap to delete the apps.

In short it's best used the way apple intended, for switching apps. But now and then take out your frustration by going through and deleting the lot.

Sunday
May202012

Downcast

Why Downcast

Okay so there are a lot of ways to get your fix of Podcasts. iTunes was my first real introduction to the world of podcasts and for lots of people it is still an excellent option. I find that I do all my podcast listening on my phone and for me and many others iTunes just doesn’t quite do it.

Anyway I’m not here to convince you that you need a third party app for podcasts. If you do want a bit more control than iTunes on your iPhone allows then check out Downcast.

Some Features of Downcast

Here are a few of the things I like about the app.

  • Excellent playback speed control. There’s about 8 speeds to choose from so no matter how fast you like to listen to the podcast then Downcast has it covered and the interface makes it easy to pick a speed. The setting can be set at a podcast level or adjusted on the fly from the ‘now playing screen’.

  • Also from the ‘now playing screen’, you can toggle continuos playback on or off. So usually you might want it on but when listening in bed you can switch it off so that you don’t have it running all night.

  • There is also a sleep mode easily accessible from the ‘now playing screen’ if you prefer. You can pick how long it is before the app shuts off.

  • There are a number of skip intervals available. Once again you can access these from the ‘now playing screen’ or you can use the remote control on your headset. For the headset remote control you can choose how far forward it jumps and independently how far back.

Finding Podcasts

You can of course subscribe to a podcast from the device and the app makes finding podcasts easy, it also helps with discovering new ones. You can enter the URL directly, search by keyword or pick a podcast from a list of categories. once you’ve subscribed, you can set specific podcasts to either stream or download, and the downloads can be set to just happen when you’re on wifi.

Playlists

There are excellent options for setting up playlists. You might have one playlist that only includes podcasts if they are unplayed audio podcasts which are set for streaming. Or a playlist which includes partially played video podcasts which are downloaded and then have them sorted oldest to newest. Oh, and you get all this functionality without having to pay for an additional in-app purchase.

iCloud

iCloud sync is also supported. So if you do listen to your podcast on multiple IOS devices they can be kept in sync across them. This can also act as a backup for your feeds.

In Conclusion

These are just some of the features of Downcast. If for some reason this app doesn’t grab you then another good one is iCatcher. it has most of the same features as Downcast but with a slightly different UI. Some things are done better, others not. Either way both apps are good choices and around the $2 mark.

The devs of both apps are responsive to feedback and both Downcast and iCatcher are currently under active development. One other thing I like about both apps is that they are fully VO accessible. Voice Over “VO” is the built in screen reader for the blind and vision impaired that is included on IOS devices.