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Category Archives: good apps

How to use Link Bubble for Android

In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?

Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:

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Here’s how to use it:

1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)

2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:

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3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:

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You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:

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These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.

4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):

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Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.

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Alternative Android browsing: Thinking beyond Chrome

Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).

You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.

There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.

Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.

If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin

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Dolphin for Android. Fast, but traditional.

Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI.  It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.

If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

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DuckDuckGo is a search engine, news reader, and Web browser built into one.

DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.

If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble 

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The “HG” bubble can be tapped to open up Link Bubble, which contains some stories clicked from this Google search.

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The Link Bubble interface, inside the bubble. Drag the bubble to different parts of the screen to perform actions. DuckDuckGo home screen widget is in background.

Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.

When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.

Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.

Using TextWrangler to write poetry

One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.

This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.

I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.

Text editors
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:

Lines
Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.

This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.

Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:

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A commented poem written in TextWrangler. Note the gray side margin.

I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.

Stylistic agnosticism
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.

BBEdit
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).

One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:

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An example of a poem screengrabbed from TextWrangler and then edited with Pixlr Express

Out There

Out There

Out There

An honest Android game is hard to find. Most are “free,” except with in-app purchases. It’s like buying an apple “for free” at a supermarket and then paying $0.85 to eat it – what’s “free” about that? Free-to-play, free-to-eat, whatever – the mobile gaming world is full of cutthroat pirates obsessed with the word candy and unconcerned with your experience. Every now and then you get lucky with something like Plants vs. Zombies 2, only to see its makers experiment with pay-to-win lawn mowers.

What a weird feeling it is then when you find a game that doesn’t have any IAP – especially when it so easily could have implemented them to squeeze for you $50 here or there. The cross-platform Out There is at once a throwback to a different type of gaming business model and one hopes a foreshadowing of what’s possible for high-quality mobile games. It only costs $3.99, and despite its labeling in Google Play, there aren’t any IAP.

Out There

Out There is beautifully illustrated

Out There is exquisitely made. The graphics resemble a comic book, with lushly colored sci-fi landscapes. The soundtrack is creepy and beautiful, or basically what you would expect for a deep-space survival adventure. It’s the 22nd century and your character has awoken from cryogenic slumber (having fared better than Ted Williams, apparently) and has to make his way from one galaxy to the next.

Right from the start, Out There has that feeling of there being a long quest ahead, which I don’t always get from mobile games that seem not to look beyond what you’re going to do 5 minutes from now when you run out of rubies/coins/donuts. There’s a dot way across the galaxy and you’ve got to get there, overcoming all sorts of hazards and misfortune along the way.

Out There ship

The ship interface in Out There

Your ship has several main resources – hull strength, fuel, and oxygen. Each one of these depletes as you travel from star system to star system. See what I mean about there being a golden opportunity for IAP here? But Out Here splendidly doesn’t take it. Instead, you can only acquire each element (H/He for fuel; O for oxygen; and Fe for hull and equipment repair) by harvesting them from stars and planets. How novel.

There’s a lot of risk/reward calculus in Out There. For example, you can drill into a planet’s surface to get iron and other metals, but doing so uses some fuel and carries the risk of breaking your drill, in which case you’ll have to use iron (what you were likely trying to acquire in the first place) to repair it. Your cargo hold is limited, with only a few slots and a cap of 20 units on each of the essential elements. It’s possible to dismantle equipment to make room and harvest elements, but doing so could leave you missing a module you’ll wish you had later on.

Out There light speed

Traveling at the speed of light in Out There.

Traveling through the lonely cosmos of Out There is dangerous. In other words, prepare for a lot of game over’s. You might spin off course and take a bunch of hull damage, or your light speed warp between worlds may fail, leaving you short 20+ fuel and no further along in your quest. The game also has a choose-your-own-adventure element to it, in which you pick one branch on a path and never really know if a choice will net you a nice resource bonus or end your game prematurely.

Out There is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, and you’ll need a lot of luck to get through it safely. But this isn’t Candy Crush luck – you won’t make it all the way to your destination without putting in some dedicated planning.

Out There galaxy

The Out There galaxy is huge

It reminds me of all the hours I logged as a kid playing Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, another tough trek (heh) that owed a lot to classic sci-fi and burnished its loopy puzzles with gorgeous artwork. Out There isn’t an adventure game per se, but its long-form, challenging characteristics make it feel like an adventurer gamer’s take on Faster Than Light or Mass Effect.