ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

Public App Feedback #1: Nextgen Reader for Windows 8

1/29/2013 6:03:22 PM

I’m going to try something new. There are quite a few apps that I use very often and like a lot, but obviously I have a few things I don’t like about them or some minor things I miss. I was meaning to send feedback to developers of these apps for a long time, but couldn’t find the time/willpower.

At the same time I promised myself to blog [almost] daily. So I thought I can shoot 2 of these goals with one shot. Hopefully this feedback is valuable not only to the developers of said app, but other developers too. If not, just let me know in the comments below and I’ll consider shutting down this new “section” of this blog.

To be clear, I’m only doing this for great apps that I really like, so you can consider these feedback posts as my endorsements of the apps. I have no interest in providing feedback for crappy apps (well, unless I have some special feelings towards the developer ;)

Nextgen Reader for Windows 8/RT

The first app in this series is Nextgen Reader – an RSS reader (Google Reader client). I’ve tried quite a few of the feed readers. Some of them were more “powerful” than Nextgen Reader, some offered more “innovative” approach to reading RSS feeds, but I prefer the straightforward approach of Nextgen Reader.

That said I had a love/hate relationship with the app for some time because it wasn’t very stable a couple of minor versions ago. At some point it was crashing too much and I thought I had enough. So I switched to Feed Reader which is another great reader even though I don’t like the UI all that much.

It seems that after an update a couple of weeks ago Nextgen Reader stopped crashing (at least didn’t crash on me yet), so I’m back to using it as my primary reader and here are things I don’t like or miss…

Do we need 2 modes?

Screenshot (6)Screenshot (7)

One of the “killer” features of Nextgen Reader is support for 2 modes: “classic” which is close to Google Reader or Mail app or something you would expect a feed reader to look like (left); and “modern” which looks like People and other Windows Store apps with large panels for each feed item.

I assume the first is aimed at keyboard-mouse users and the second one at touch users? Honestly I don’t know which one I prefer. And most importantly I don’t hate any one of them. I could’ve used one or the other just fine. The presence of 2 modes just adds confusion and wastes my brain cells when I think about switching (or not switching) to the modern mode on every launch. I’m pretty sure it also wastes precious developer time. But I guess there are people who feel strongly in favor (or against) one or the other. So dropping one of them now could result in a public outcry.

At the very least there should be an option to pick the mode it launches in. Or better yet just persist the mode between launches.

OneNote-like collapsing of hierarchy

Another annoying thing is that in classic mode all 3 columns (feed list, feed post list and content) are always visible. This is not a big deal when used in full screen mode, but I mostly have a Tweetro snapped to the side when reading feeds and all 3 columns suffer:

Screenshot (8)

I really don’t need to see the feed list column when I’m reading 20 articles in a particular feed. The list should be collapsed. Most of the other RSS reader apps do this. Even craptastic Mail app does it. And OneNote does it beautifully.

Wider reading pane in “filled” mode

Hierarchy collapsing would allow for content pane to be wider in classic mode and there’s no reason for reading pane to be as narrow in filled mode as it currently is.

Screenshot (9)

Just make it wider.

“Open in browser” is behind ellipsis in “classic” mode

When I read a post and want to read the comments or post my own I’d like to go to the website in a browser. In “modern” mode the “open in browser” button is front and center (top left, actually ;) (see the screenshot above). For some reason in “classic” mode the “open in browser feature is hidden behind an ellipsis

Screenshot (11)

There’s more space in that top bar to fit it even in the filled mode. And I sync once per reading session and wouldn’t mind going to that sub menu or app bar to do that, but I’d love to be able to open the post in browser without that extra tap.

Video resizing

New version resizes images to fit the reading pane. That’s great. It would be great to do the same for videos (at least YouTube) and I think it’s pretty easy to do.

Screenshot (13)

Part of the video doesn’t fit and YouTube’s HTML5 player craps out a little when it doesn’t fit into the screen.

Sync doesn’t load feeds that had no posts

And finally a minor bug report. It seems that after you’ve read all the posts in a feed syncing doesn’t load new posts for that feed.

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That’s it. As you can see most of my issues are pretty minor and otherwise Nextgen Reader is an awesome app. Highly recommended.

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The End of Post-PC Era

1/23/2013 6:57:59 PM

pcs
Photo by Yutaka Tsutano

In 2010 Apple introduced the first iPad and basically created a new segment of devices – tablets. iPad wasn’t a full PC replacement (and still isn’t) but was considered a big step towards the real post-PC era. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that at some point in the near future iPad (and possibly similar competing products) would replace PCs for most purposes, except maybe some very specific areas. That said, to this day it’s pretty much inconceivable for someone who ever really needed a PC to be able to get by without one. Starting with school kids, to students, to “knowledge workers” its either impossible or, at the very least, less productive to use a tablet instead of a PC.

Android device manufacturers tried to compete with Apple on the similar 10” field and pretty much failed. Then they moved down to the 7” form factor and things started taking of for Android tablets. 7” tablets don’t have an ambition to replace PCs. They know their niche as a portable universal consumption devices and are fine with it. It’s possible to imagine doing actual work on a 10” device, but 7” is definitely out of the question. Steve Jobs famously dismissed 7 inch tablets as dead on arrival, but in 2012 Apple caved in and released iPad Mini. All the people I know personally and virtually who owned a big iPad and bought an iPad mini love the little one and basically stopped using the 10” tablet.

People love their 7-8” tablets and I take it as vote for placing tablets in a special separate niche (like mp3 players) and abandoning the ambition of dethroning PCs as the most important computing devices. And larger phones are pushing the tablet category from the bottom with 5”+ phones making 7” tablets irrelevant for their owners.

As of today I think there are 3 categories of potential tablet users:

  • people who never needed PCs (mostly elderly people) or who don’t need a PC yet (small kids)
  • people who actively dislike large smartphones
  • people with first-world-problems (aka excess money)

Everyone else is pretty much set with a large-enough smartphone and a PC. Agree/disagree?

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Introducing PhoneNameResolver–a lib to decipher Windows Phone models

1/21/2013 8:31:54 PM

image

On Windows Phone you can get information about device’s manufacturer and model using Microsoft.Phone.Info.DeviceStatus class. Unfortunately the results you get do not always represent model names people are used to (see the screenshot above). To make matters worse same models made for different network operators quite often return different values. Additionally returned value quite often changes between batches of the same model. With Windows Phone 8 Nokia went one step further and introduced so many variations of the model name that it became extremely painful to account for all of them manually. That’s why I decided to dedicate a few hours on a weekend to make a small lib that helps with this problem.

PhoneNameResolver (released under MIT license) is a very simple static class that has only one public method called Resolve(). You pass the manufacturer and model name from the DeviceStatus and it returns an object of type CanonicalPhoneName which contains resolved “canonical” (official and/or widely used) model name.

Here’s a sample:

var phone = PhoneNameResolver.Resolve(
    DeviceStatus.DeviceManufacturer, DeviceStatus.DeviceName);
SomeTextBox.Text = phone.FullCanonicalName;

CanonicalManufacturer and CanonicalModel include manufacturer and model separately and are always set. In the case the lib wasn’t able to resolve the model they will be set to the same values passed to the method and IsResolved property will be set to false.

At the moment the lib resolves Nokia, HTC, Samsung and LG model names. The reported/canonical value pairs where collected from public unofficial sources so there’s absolutely no guarantee in the accuracy of the results.

The lib is basically a single C# file and all the model name definitions are included in the same file. I did this to make it extremely easy to just drop the file into your project and to make it work as fast and as config free as possible. That said this is probably not the best architecture to update model definitions without recompiling an app. I’m still open to ideas and this may change in the future. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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2 Years of Entrepreneurship

1/18/2013 3:39:00 PM

Fotolia_43077848_M

Well, actually I’ve been doing something like entrepreneurship for the past ~14 years, but the last 2 mark the first time I went all-in, hence the title.

This write-up is mostly for my future self. It’ll be interesting to read this in a few years and compare to my thoughts/experiences on the subject. You are more than welcome to tag along, though. If you have any thoughts or arguments either in agreeing or disagreeing with me, please, do not hesitate to express them in the comments.

On starting up

iStock_000011756085SmallI had an idea for AdDuplex in December 2010. There’s nothing radically new about it. That said, for some reason, no one thought of it at that time (at least as far as I know). Anyway, I decided to scratch my own itch and implement it on Windows Phone. Some thought (and probably still think) I was stupid not to jump to iOS and Android immediately once I got proof that developers really needed and liked a service like this. Some also said that should’ve moved to Silicon Valley immediately and I would’ve been “golden” by now. Well, I didn’t and I didn’t.

I think the most likely outcome of both moves would be either dying because of money running out before we get to something meaningful across all the platforms, or, in case I managed to secure enough funding to start, being forced to “pivot” to something that has a better theoretical chance of becoming “a billion dollar company”. More on that later. Anyway, I’m enjoying being an important part of the Windows Phone and now Windows 8 ecosystems. And I like living in Lithuania. And we will see about that summer house in California ;)

One thing that really helped me start this was the fact that I had reasonable semi-passive income from now defunct .NET part of amCharts. Ironically other 2 big pushes came from really bad news from Microsoft. First one came in a form of only 30 countries “allowed” to develop for Windows Phone. This is now resolved, but If not for that blow I would probably be developing some mediocre WP apps at the moment. Another big blow came right at the time I’ve started seeing traction with AdDuplex. At the first Windows 8 announcement event Microsoft has famously “forgotten” to mention WPF/Silverlight or any other XAML/C# based development technology as a platform to create Windows 8 apps. This resulted in the sales of our (amCharts) WPF/Silverlight controls dropping to virtually zero. It was a clear signal that I needed to find a new occupation and a source of income ASAP. So I jumped from being 50/50 involved with AdDuplex and amCharts to something like 90/10 and then going all-in with AdDuplex.

As I mentioned having a passive income was very important, so I think you should always think about having some passive income so it’s way easier to jump aboard your next crazy idea. Check out The 4-Hour Workweek for some ideas on this. In case you don’t have that, but itch to start something, I think its more productive to stay at a 9-to-5 job and moonlight, than trying to mix entrepreneurship with some consulting work. I’ve tried to do that for more than 10 years and it never actually worked out. Both sides suffer, but the startup side suffers more. Consulting brings real money in after all.

There’s always an option of getting an investment for your startup. Good luck with that. Unless you have a Name or are a world class bullshitter this is a waste of time in the very early stage, imho.

On being a solo founder

Right when I had the idea and got unreasonably excited I’ve shared it with a fellow developer (who should probably remain nameless). He tried to cool me down by saying he doesn’t think it’s such a good idea, and even if it is, we would be blown away by the big boys once they figure there’s something in it. My next several attempts to “recruit” co-founders failed in a similar fashion. I guess it’s the main (only?) disadvantage of being a startup founder in mid-thirties – most of the people you know have families, mortgages and other commitments, and their minimum viable income expectations are much higher than when they were 10-15 years younger.

Anyway I decided that enough is enough and I’m not going to look for co-founders just for the sake of it. There was a limited list of people I’d like to team up with and I’ve exhausted it. And, after all, I thought I had everything needed to for the first step – I can do the server side myself, I can do the SDK on my own, and I have a sense of “ugly”, meaning I know that if I really try to Design something it will end up ugly, so I should keep it simple.

They say being a solo founder is hard. There’s no one to kick your butt when you are slacking off. There’s no one to say something optimistic when you think you are screwed. Etc., etc. Well, I don’t see this as anything tragic. Sometimes it actually is really productive to slack off a little. No matter how counter intuitive this sounds. There’s also a benefit of having no one to fight for “who deserves more” and there’s only one “because I said so”. Decisions are way easier to make. Sometimes even dangerously easy. In any case I think there are obviously cons of being a solo founder but there are pros too. Definitely nothing tragic about it.

On investments/investors

iStock_000013909045SmallMy idea of a perfect business is something in the middle between what VC world calls “lifestyle business” and “a billion dollar company”. In other words I’d rather run a $10m 5 person business, than a $500m 300 people company.

Unfortunately in my experience most of the Silicon Valley crowd is anally fixated on the “show me how this is a billion dollar company?” question. And by Silicon Valley I don’t mean the exact location in California (even though it is in high concentration over there), but places all over the world trying to replicate SV. The question is totally understandable for large VC funds. This is how their mechanics work and it’s fine. But all the lower levels of the ecosystem are very focused on how you are going to raise your next round, therefore everyone looking to invest $10k is asking the billion dollar question. Some people tell me this is not the case and there are lots of investors who don’t care about that and “I totally see you being acquired for $50m”, but immediately follow by “but we only care about $100m+ opportunities”. Anyway I’m obviously exaggerating and I don’t have enough experience in this since I never seriously looked for an investment, but from the limited experience that I had I came out with this takeaway. Take it or leave it.

I came really close to getting a sort-of institutional Angel/Seed investment once. As close as having all the investment papers reviewed and negotiated with lawyers, but things fell through in the end due to something you could probably call force-majeure. I had a technically less attractive (from pure economics) offer from my friend/previous business partner on the table, but I wanted to get a more “formal” investment at that point. One of the reasons I wanted that, was my belief that having an outside investor would indirectly introduce more discipline in my solo act.

Anyway, I ended up getting that FFF (friends, family and fools) investment. The reason I need it was that half a year after I’ve started I found myself deadlocked most of the time. I was a developer (server and client), designer (ahem), marketer, sales person, support and everything in-between. Once this thing has taken of I couldn’t perform any of these things effectively. I was making some money. More or less enough to feed me, but not enough to safely hire someone to help with some of those functions. So I needed a buffer to get to that next level. And I got it.

On hiring

So far at AdDuplex I’ve only hired one person, so not much wisdom I can provide here. That said I ended hiring based on cultural fit over (perceived) competence more than a year before reading a post by Brad Feld of the same title. I’ve interviewed 4 people. All had very similar salary expectations. I ended up hiring the youngest guy with less experience on paper, but the one my hunch told me was a right fit. I’d be lying if I didn’t see the most potential competence in him over the other 3, but most likely the decisive factor was the fact that he just felt like the best fit. One year later I’m totally happy with that decision.

On accelerators

Once I’ve got accustomed to people calling what I’m doing a startup, I started paying attention to startup accelerators. Not that I ever seriously considered setting going to one of them as my goal, but I’ve sent a couple of half-assed applications to TechStars and some others. In late 2011 I’ve learned about Startup Sauna and applied (again half-assedly) via their referral track. Needless to say half-assed applications don’t get you invited. When Startup Sauna had their warm-up in Kaunas in early 2012 I applied and prepared more carefully. My reasoning for doing this is documented in this post. Long story short, we’ve got invited to the final program, traveled to Silicon Valley and talked to a ton of smart people and investors (smart people too ;). It was great and it was a great way for introvert technical geeks to expand social horizons dramatically, learn a few things about running a business and get a real life experience pitching your product to real investors.

In short, I think if you can get into a great accelerator like Startup Sauna you shouldn’t think twice. It really does accelerate things for you. Even if the thing it accelerates is failure, it’s still a good thing. “Fail fast” and blah blah blah.

On networking, PR and marketing

One of the main realizations over these 2 years was that personal connections are as important in the capitalist community of the 21st century as they were in the Soviet economy of the 20th. Great product is as important as ever and likely more important than it was in pre-internet days, but lack of visibility could be more tragic than before too. The main asset of PR agencies (besides the ability to write boring press releases with stock CEO quotes) is personal connections to media. If you start working on your connections after you launch your product its probably too late and using a PR agency is probably the easiest way to get in front of the media.

Luckily for me I loved Twitter way before I could so conveniently claim that I’m using it for work ;) For an introvert geek like me Twitter is an awesome tool and the channel I made most of my personal connections through. That said real life interactions help deepen the connections you make on Twitter and this is one of the things I wish I realized sooner. I was averse to the idea of going to social gatherings, conferences and such, but I’ve started changing my outlook on it and I can even say I started liking it recently. Obviously the process is long and you have to go through a phase when no one knows you anywhere and it’s really boring and even depressing, but as I said, this is the large part of this entrepreneurship thing and not doing it handicaps your business in a pretty major way.

I have a whole post on the subject of networking for the geeks like me. Hopefully I’ll get to posting it soon.

On travelling

I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure I’ve travelled more over the last 2 years than in the previous 35. It’s amusing to see how my own view on the travels changed. Just a few years ago I would thoroughly prepare for each trip I take. I would be puzzled by the lack of desire from, say, conference speakers to go sightseeing during their trips. I’m not at that point yet, but I already feel that quite often I have to force myself to go check out the surroundings during one of such trips.

It also takes its toll on vacations. The thought of going to some all-inclusive-lazy-laying-by-the-pool resort was nauseating to me just a few years ago. Now this is my most coveted type of vacation. Second only to not going anywhere at all.

On growth

We are at a point again, like I was a little more than a year ago, when we just have too much stuff to juggle for just the two of us. Again, we are making enough money to carry on with what we do, but not enough to expand comfortably. And I’m confused as for what to do next. Should I look for investment? Should I double down on the money making side of the business even if it means sacrificing the growth? These are the questions I have opposing definitive answers to every time I wake up in the morning. Oh, well, uncertainty is probably the most certain thing about entrepreneurship.

Onwards

Anyway. This was probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written and I should wrap it up and go do some real sh*t. Overall I’ve enjoyed the last 2 years very much and wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’ve been out of the real job market for too long (12 years) and I don’t think I want to go back anytime soon or any time at all. So, I love what I’m doing and this what I hope to be doing until I get rich and lazy (not that I ever wasn’t lazy) or until I die trying. We’ll see how it goes.

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11” Tablet is Bigger Than 17” Notebook

1/10/2013 5:26:09 PM

TL;DR – jump directly to the explanation of the title to skip the pre-story.

So here’s the deal. I spend 95%+ of my “computing” time at my desk in the office. Let’s say 4% consuming content at home on a tablet (or a shared living room PC) and 1% on the road with a laptop. That 1% forces me not to own a notebook. On the other hand I use that notebook so rarely that it would be a waste of money and it’d be always “out of date” when I need it. So here’s my setup today:

WP_20130107_001

Ever since Windows 8 was announced I was dreaming about replacing that laptop with a powerful tablet. My thesis was that since I use that table keyboard 1% of the time there’s no need for it to collect the dust on my desk. Most people found that to be a weak reason to suffer with a Bluetooth keyboard in that 1%. Oh, well. I still wanted that tablet/PC. I wanted to take a lighter (even though that ASUS ultrabook is pretty light) tablet home, sacrifice nothing at work and didn’t mind using external keyboard in rare occasions when I need the full notebook experience.

V700-photo-gallery-04Windows 8 arrived and it seemed like most OEMs shared the vision that there’s no need for a really reasonably powerful tablet/PC. The only device that even remotely satisfied my thesis was Acer Iconia W700.

Unfortunately it was quite substantially underpowered: Core i5 max, 4gb of RAM max, 128gb SSD max. Additionally its docking station has only USB and power cord ports. You still need to plug your monitor, headphones, etc. separately when you bring it from home.

So I was waiting for someone to come up with a similar but more advanced model (or Acer to introduce higher end versions of W700).

Then at CES Lenovo introduced ThinkPad Helix:

This is full power (to a reasonable extent) PC and a tablet. Perfect! Even though it doesn’t address my “dust thesis”. One of the “crazy” features of the Helix is that you can detach it’s “head”, use it as tablet or attach it backwards like this:

ThinkPad-Helix-Convertible-Tablet-PC-Stand-View-2L-940x475

Many people got excited about the Helix but I haven’t seen anyone excited about this “backwards” mode. Tim Danton at PC Pro writes:

It’s harder to be convinced by Lenovo’s claims that there’s a genuine advantage from one of the Helix’s key features: that you can “rip and twist” the screen so the screen faces in the opposite direction to the keyboard.

… I’m doubtful as to how often most people will want to do this, but I’m happy to be corrected …

Most people on Twitter didn’t get it either:

My explanation was that my laptop keyboard just stands between me and the notebook’s monitor for no reason. Then I had another idea and did a little experiment:

WP_20130107_002

What you see here is 10” Surface RT placed at the front edge of my 13” laptop and photographed from my usual sitting position. It’s not difficult to see that the Surface fully covers notebook’s screen. I’ve calculated that a 9.2” tablet would be virtually bigger as a second monitor than a 13” laptop.

By the same logic (and math) 11.6” Helix placed at the front edge of a 15.6” random Lenovo laptop would have a screen virtually comparable to a 17.3” monitor attached to the end edge of said laptop. Here’s a diagram:

11vs17

So there you have it. Hopefully I didn’t mess up the math, but the diagram which is done more or less at scale confirms my calculations.

Is it a reason enough for me to get excited about the Helix and its “odd feature”?

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Outlook.com is great, but ...

1/7/2013 8:04:53 PM

outlookcom

I’ve recently switched my personal email account from Gmail to Outlook.com. I’ve been using Outlook.com for several weeks now and I really like it. I’ll need some time to figure out if it’s really great or was I just wowed by its slickness. On the surface it feels nicer, faster, more natural when navigated with keyboard, etc. But that’s another story.

This post is about one “feature” that made its way from Hotmail to Outlook.com. It’s the thing I hated the most in Hotmail. I complained to support about it like 3-4 years ago and got a response that, no, it’s not possible to switch this feature off. It’s been several years since then, a new UI, a new domain, a new name but this ridiculous feature is still there and you still can’t turn it off.

That feature is a popup (you can see it at the bottom of the screenshot above) offering you to collect your emails from another account into your Outlook.com. The email address in question is the one I use as my Microsoft Account (formerly know as Live ID). It’s not a @hotmail.com or @live.com or @outlook.com address. There’s no real mail box behind it so I can’t set it up to make this dialog shut up. And even if I could, what if I just don’t want to?

You can close this dialog, but the next time you visit Outlook.com it will pop up again. How difficult could it be to make a way to disable this “feature” permanently? I don’t have any hope of getting it fixed via official support channels so the only thing left is bitching on the internet. So here you go, I’ve bitched. I can now return to the regular things. Right after I click that “Close” button and swear.

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Apps I use on my Surface

1/3/2013 8:49:55 PM

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I’ve been using Microsoft Surface with Windows RT for 2 months now. I was lucky to get one at the Build conference and while I still think a dedicated tablet doesn’t have a place in my life, but since I already got it I’ve been using it and warmed up to the idea a little.

Surface is not perfect, user experience is not perfect, but it improved pretty dramatically over the past 2 months and it gets updates frequently. There’s no need to post another Surface review, so rather than doing that I decided to cover the apps I’ve been using on it.

I’m not going to cover built-in apps. Most of them are pretty basic at best. I’ll only cover apps that I’ve installed from the store. And I’ve downloaded a lot of them. But I’ll only list the apps I actually use regularly.

The order is pretty random and is based on the order of these apps on my start screen. Prices are for US store as of January 3rd, 2012. Screenshots are linked to the store.

Tweetro+ ($4.99, no trial)

tweetro

Whatever I do on the Surface I usually have Tweetro+ snapped to the side. Conceptually I may like Metrotwit better, but as far as polish goes, Tweetro+ is the best Twitter client on Windows 8/RT at the moment.

Skype (free)

skype

Well, Skype is Skype. Not much to add here. It was very raw when Surface was released but it got an update or two since then and is pretty fine now.

ICQ (free)

icq

Old habits die hard and I still have a few friends with ICQ as our primary communication channel.

Nextgen Reader ($2.99 with unrestrained trial)

nextgen_reader

Arguably the best RSS reader at the moment with two way sync with Google Reader. It has some stability issues and a few other quirks which hopefully will be addressed soon (I’m going to send my list to the developers). Nothing major though and it’s safe to say Nextgen Reader is my second most used app after Tweetro.

HackerNews Reader ($1.49 with ad supported unrestricted trial)

hackernews_reader

Well, the name says it all. I didn’t research if HackerNews Reader is the best, but for an occasional user like me it does the job just fine.

OneNote (free)

onenote

While it doesn’t do everything its desktop counterpart does, it’s pretty close. It also features a really innovative and well thought out UX unlike some other Microsoft apps (Mail, I’m looking at you!). OneNote is a living proof that pretty complex Metro apps can be done and can be a joy to use.

Trello (free)

trello

Official Trello app does a great job as the Metro companion for the Trello web app. Even though it doesn’t do everything the web app does, it definitely looks better ;) And in case you don’t know what Trello is, in their own words “Trello is a collaboration tool that organizes your projects into boards. In one glance, Trello tells you what's being worked on, who's working on what, and where something is in a process.”

Calculator2 (free)

calculator2

Strangely enough Windows 8/RT comes without a bundled Metro calculator. Calculator2 was one of the first apps to fill the gap and it does it pretty well for my needs that I never had a need to look for anything else. Plus it uses AdDuplex which doesn’t hurt either ;) If for some reason you look for alternatives check out Calculator X8 made by Gergely Orosz.

Timer & Stop Watch (free)

timerandstopwatch

We always tend to go over time on AppBizDev podcast so I needed a simple way to track time. I’ve tried quite a few stopwatch apps and this one was the simplest and does exactly what I need it to do.

NovaMind Mind Mapping (free + feature IAPs (up to $14.99))

novamind

Mind mapping is a fancy way to replace bulleted lists when brainstorming, taking notes etc. NovaMind is the best app, imho, to do that on the Surface. The core app is free and lets you do all the basic stuff. You can buy extra features ranging from saving to SkyDrive to checkboxes to extra themes.

PrimeTube (free)

primetube

PrimeTube is a really nice YouTube client. One of the reasons you want a YouTube client is that it keeps playing when you switch to some other app (unlike Internet Explorer). The only issue I have with PrimeTube is that it doesn’t play fullscreen when in Filled mode (with other app snapped to the side of the screen).

mobile.HD Media Player ($3.49 with time limited trial)

mobilehd

It’s no secret that the default video player is not able to play your absolutely legally obtained MKV video files ;) That’s where mobile.HD Media Player comes in. So far it was able to play everything I’ve thrown at it. It also plays the files over the network. I didn’t do exhaustive testing though, but as far as I can tell, I have no real-life need for the much hyped VLC player at the moment.

Fresh Paint (free)

freshpaint

Fresh Paint is a finger (stylus?) painting app from Microsoft. A couple of ugly paintings I’ve used in earlier posts were made with it.

Files&Folders (free)

filesfolders

Files&Folders is a nice file manager. Not that I need it too often, but when I do it’s a way more touch friendly way to manage files than Windows Explorer.

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That’s it. Do not hesitate to suggest better alternatives to what I use or other great apps in the comments.

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What’s wrong with Music and Podcasts in Windows Phone 8

1/2/2013 7:06:55 PM

7more8

I love Windows Phone 8, all the new features it brings and this Nokia Lumia 920 phone. That said there’s one area that degraded so much from Windows Phone 7.x that it makes me really sad. To make things worse it’s not some obscure area that no one ever uses. It’s the part of the system that I use every single day. It’s music and podcasts.

It may not be as painful to those who used these features on WP7 differently from how I used them. For some it maybe even worse though, because Podcasts for some wildly inexplicable reason are only available to users in US (I use my phone in US “mode”).

So here’s a list of things that bother me. You may have your own list or I may have missed something that would make my life easier. In this case, please, let me know in the comments.

Music

  1. Sync. I don’t feel the need to have my whole music collection on the phone. I mostly listen to music on the phone when driving. I listen and “discover” music on my PC. So I had a “current” playlist and gradually added (or removed) songs to it in Zune (PC) and it was set to sync with my WP7. That’s it. Worked like a charm.

    Zune knows nothing about WP8, Xbox Music on Windows 8 knows nothing about WP8, Windows Phone app doesn’t know much about Xbox Music, Windows Media Player knows nothing about Xbox Music DRM, Windows Phone desktop sync application can (manually) sync playlist from PC to phone but some (all?) DRMed songs refused to play on the phone. I may need to play more with that sync app, but it’s definitely not going to be as seamless as it was with Zune until something more fundamental changes.
  2. wp_ss_20130102_0001Cloud music. The [theoretically] cool feature of Xbox Music on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is that the music you get on your PC shows up in your library on the phone. The actual files are not downloaded to the phone. They just appear as “links” to the cloud. So when you play the music it’s streamed over whatever data connection you happen to be using. As I mentioned, I mostly listen to music on the phone while driving so it uses my mobile data connection. Now I don’t know about global mobile data situation, but my understanding is that unlimited data plans are not widely available and are actually on the decline (at least in US). And honestly, I don’t want to pay more for data to get an unlimited data plan. Especially to listen to music that I’ve already downloaded to my PC.

    So I thought I’ll just copy the album I wanted to listen to the phone and it’ll play locally. Little did I know that it’ll play the same songs twice – once from the local storage and once from the cloud. So as far as I understand at this point you either have to go download the same music twice – once on the PC and once on the phone, or you just disable the “cloud music” on the phone and copy the files.

Podcasts

Here’s a part of Windows Phone 8 FAQ admitting there’s something terribly wrong with podcasts on WP8 if Microsoft is “forced” to recommend using iTunes!

▼How can I get my podcasts on my phone?

There are a couple of ways to get podcasts, but not with the Windows Phone app. The first way is to get them from the Store on your phone. If you'd prefer to get them from your PC, you can download them in iTunes, then use the Windows Phone app for desktop (beta) to sync them to your phone. To learn more, see Sync with my Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC.

So here’s my list for podcasts:

  1. Sync. I know many people don’t see this as an issue since they didn’t use podcasts this way on WP7 either, but I used to subscribe to podcasts on the PC (in Zune) and then autosync them to phone whenever it’s plugged into the PC (which is for 8-12 hours every day).

    What are the benefits of this? 1) you can easily mark multiple episodes as played (more on this later); 2) you can finish listening an episode on your PC (it autosynced position); 3) you can force a check for new episodes (more on this later); 4) you can subscribe to podcasts via RSS.

    I know that most of these issues were identical on the phone side in WP7, but they were mitigated by my use of Zune to manage podcasts.
  2. wp_ss_20130102_0002Sort order. It’s not about sort order itself. It’s about sorting by oldest being unusable for any podcast with a sizeable history and sorting by newest being quite an odd experience when you are not 100% done with all of the episodes when a new one comes out.

    When you sort by oldest you get the whole history of the podcast as unplayed until you mark all of the old episodes as played. And you have to do it one episode at a time (unless I missed something).

    Sorting by newest doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Maybe only if you choose to store one latest episode only and delete the older episode independently of it’s played status. If you choose to keep more than one episode you’ll end up listening to the newest episode when you hit the play button next to the podcast even if you were only half way through the previous one. So to have any sort of reasonable listening order you have to monitor the progress yourself and manually pick an episode you want to listen to.
  3. Manual refresh. The podcast service/app on the phone chooses when to check for new episodes based on some black box algorithm. It’s very annoying when you know for a fact that the new episode of your popular show is out but it’s not yet on your phone for some reason. The only workaround I know is unsubscribing and resubscribing to the podcast which is annoying, looses listening history, etc.
  4. Podcasts from store only. There’s no way to add podcasts other than looking them up in the store. I guess that’s the reason why podcasts are a US-only feature. In any case not every podcast in the world is listed in the Zune store. And it’s going to get worse since there’s no equivalent for the podcast part of Zune on Windows 8.

Even though it was a pretty long post, I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten to mention. I really hope that situation changes as soon as possible. I assume the podcast situation can be somewhat resolved by using a 3rd party app. Which one is your favorite? As far as music goes, I wouldn’t want to drop the Xbox Music Pass, so I hope to find ways to make it work the way I want.

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