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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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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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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AdDuplex Gift Coupons for Your Developer Friends

12/19/2012 2:49:38 PM

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Do you have Windows Phone or Windows 8 developer friends? One of the best holiday gifts you can give them is some extra exposure for their apps. That’s what AdDuplex gift coupons are fore.

There are 3 types of coupons:

  • $15/5,000 impressions
  • $50/20,000 impressions (list value $60)
  • $100/20,000 impressions (list value $200)

That’s an easy and valuable present for your geek friends.

Buy AdDuplex gift codes here.

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We Need More Windows 8 Devices Like Acer Iconia W700

10/22/2012 7:04:16 PM

I’ve blogged a couple of months ago about how I imagine my next PC. Windows 8 launch is just few days away and there’s only one device on the market that somewhat satisfies my criteria and it’s Acer Iconia W700.

It has things I’m looking for:

  • Reasonably powerful Intel Core i5 CPU
  • 4gb of RAM (could’ve been more, but most of the competing products come with 2, so I’d settle for 4 for now)
  • 128gb SSD (256 would be better but most tablets max out at 64 so 128 is already good)
  • 11.6” Full HD IPS screen (10” is too small for my intended second screen use)
  • Up to 9h battery life (I don’t buy it, but if it holds 6h+ I’d be happy)
  • Has a desk docking station
  • Doesn’t dock into a keyboard (mostly useless dust collector/space waster for my intended usage)

A few things I still miss:

  • A real docking station. This one acts only as a stand and USB hub to be honest. I’d like to have my external monitor and headphones hooked up to the dock so I don’t have to plug/unplug them every day. Plus this one is pretty ugly :)
  • A model with more than 4gb of RAM and 256gb SSD

Other than that it looks close to perfect (at least on paper) and I’m probably going to buy it. Even if to express my support for this form factor. Looks like it went ignored by other OEMs and I don’t like that.

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Ad Rotator (Gergely Orosz and Simon Jackson) on AppBizDev

10/15/2012 4:00:53 PM

If you monetize your Windows Phone (and Windows 8) apps with ads you probably know not to rely on a single ad network. Some do better in one region and have nothing to show in all others, some pay more in some countries but less in the others, etc. And the fill rate is never 100%. So to make sure you utilize your ad space to the max you use multiple ad providers.

It’s not too difficult to implement a system that will switch from one ad provider to some other when there’s no ad to show. But if you want to do it really well you’d probably need to have different defaults for different locales. And to make things more complicated performance of different ad networks changes regularly. So you don’t want to hard code any of these settings into your app and issue an update whenever market situation changes. You can still implement an intelligent system like that yourself, but why reinvent the wheel?

There’s an open source project called Ad Rotator which can do all of the above and more for you. We’ve interviewed lead contributors to the project – Gergely Orosz and Simon Jackson on the latest episode of AppBizDev podcast. Check it out and make sure you subscribe in Zune, iTunes or any other tool to get new episodes automatically.

And, btw, if you have some music skills in addition to your awesome dev skills, you can get a MILLION free ad impressions on AdDuplex network by contributing a theme music to the podcast. Check out more details here.

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The Last Act of App Gold Rush

10/11/2012 3:46:20 PM

Fotolia_27774128_M

App gold rush is over. Creating an app and going straight to refreshing your bank account is not a feasible plan anymore. Even if you are extremely naïve, it’s unlikely that you still think it’s possible.

There are more than 700,000 apps on iOS, almost 700,000 on Android and, even on Windows Phone, we have more than 100,000 apps. Yes, analysts still predict that the mobile app market will grow to $25 billion by 2015 and I don’t disagree with them. It’s just that the lions share of that grows will be collected by the likes of Electronic Arts, Zynga or Rovio. Not hundreds of “2-guys-in-the-garage” teams like it was possible just a few years ago.

So no, you won’t get a medal or a pile of cash just for posting an app into the store in 2012.

The app gold rush is over. Almost over. There’s only one act left.

More than 16 million people have tried pre-release versions of Windows 8. That’s more than iPad 1s ever sold. One of the early apps on the platform – Cocktail Flow – has already seen more than 100,000 downloads, even though the OS is not publicly available yet. Microsoft expects to sell about 400 million copies of Windows 8 in its first year.

And there are only 2,000 3,600 apps (the number is growing fast but it’s still very low) in the Windows Store at the moment. And the official public launch is only few weeks away.

So, the app gold rush is almost over, but there’s still one act left. And you are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. Being there at launch means that you have great chances to be mentioned in early OS reviews across the web, get early adopters who will spread the word about you to their friends, low competition, etc., etc. This is a luxury that costs a lot of money and effort later on, but you can get it for free by acting fast.

I encourage you to jump on the bandwagon while it’s still hot. I’m pretty sure this is the last opportunity in this cycle and it won’t repeat until someone invents some new revolutionary concept. App stores are done for the small guys and this is the last launch that matters.

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The Killer Feature of Windows RT

8/27/2012 4:19:53 PM

Yes, it starts with M. No, it’s not the forbidden M-word (aka Metro). The word is multitenant and here’s why I think it’s the most important feature for me and hopefully for a lot of other consumers too.

image

I have a family of 3. We own one iPad. Technically it belongs to my wife, so it’s configured with her accounts. There’s no way I’m logging in and out of all the twitters, facebooks and googles of the world on every use. So I barely use that iPad. On the other hand, there’s no way I’m buying a $600 consumption device for every member of the household. And sub-$200 Android devices are either crap, or US-centric (Kindle Fire, Nexus 7) content-wise, or both.

Maybe I live in some bubble, but in my world 90%+ of the people I know can’t go by with just a consumption device. My daughter needs to create a lot of stuff for school, make music, videos and other teenager hobby stuff. My wife enjoys fine control of editing her photos, blogging, etc. They are not power users on any scale, but “post-PC era” is not ready for their basic needs just yet.

So we are going to have at the very least 2 PCs of some sort in our home in the foreseeable future. We all have smartphones for our “computing” needs on the go. So the best niche for a tablet in our household I can see is something you may call a second screen device – a companion for hanging on the sofa watching TV, or a vacation device, or “a coffee table” device – a replacement for a stack of magazines on a coffee table.

And for these uses one device is more than enough. It just has to support an effortless way of switching profiles for every one of it’s frequent users. And Windows RT (whether it’s on Microsoft Surface or some other slate) does just that perfectly (at least I assume it does ;)

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Launching Windows Store from your Metro style app

7/13/2012 3:03:44 PM

Suppose you wanted to include a page in your new shiny Windows 8 Metro app listing your other apps and when a user taps on an app in the list he/she will be immediately transferred into Windows Store to give you more money (or at least boost your rankings). How do you do that?

In Windows Phone that was really easy. There was a MarketplaceDetailTask class just for that. So you would do something like this:

MarketplaceDetailTask mpTask = new MarketplaceDetailTask();
mpTask.ContentIdentifier = marketplaceAppId;
mpTask.Show();

Done!

But there’s nothing like that in WinRT. As it usually happens with advanced APIs simplicity was sacrificed in the name of flexibility. In Windows 8 any app can register (with user’s permission) as a default app to handle some protocol. So Windows Store is no different. It’s a default app to handle “ms-windows-store” protocol. You can read more on the protocol here.

So you need to construct a URI, create an instance of Windows.System.Launcher and call LaunchUriAsync(uri). Here’s a tutorial on how to do this for a general abstract case.

So the structure of URI for ms-windows-store protocol looks like this:

ms-windows-store:PDP?PFN=

Where PFN stands for Package Family Name which is sort of an equivalent of marketplace id of your app in Windows Store. If it’s for your own app you can get it in Visual Studio or web version of your apps listing in the store as detailed in this post. If it’s not your app the web version is your only choice and (to make things more complicated) it’s not browsable or searchable at the time of this writing. So the only way to get it is if developers posted a link to it on their web page (let me know in the comments if you know other ways).

Developers of the awesome twitter client Metrotwit did just that and we can browse to their web listing and view source of that page.

image

So we now have everything we need and the C# code to launch a Windows Store for Metrotwit from within your Metro style app looks like this:

var storeURI = new Uri("ms-windows-store:PDP?PFN=PixelTuckerPtyLtd.MetroTwit_5kbmb3e034y6r");
await Windows.System.Launcher.LaunchUriAsync(storeURI);

It’s not too difficult to create a Windows Phone style wrapper for this if you wish to do it “old school” way.

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My Next PC

7/4/2012 6:40:21 PM

Most of my adult life I’ve been using desktop PCs. Then for some time I’ve switched to a laptop docked to the monitor, network, etc. I wasn’t traveling at all at that time, so this was mostly pointless and underpowered setup. That said, at times I needed to take my work with me I didn’t need to do anything. Just take the laptop and go.

Then I switched back to a desktop. Then I started travelling a little more and having a desktop and a laptop that was collecting dust 90% of the time wasn’t convenient. You either have to manage your laptop for no reason or it’s outdated, etc. when you need it. So I switched back to a laptop based desktop system. Here’s how my workplace looks at the moment.

WP_000746

The keyboard and touchpad on the ultrabook just occupy the space most of the time. Plus all the ultrabooks on the market at the moment lack a dock option (as far as I know) so I’m plugging 4 cables each morning. But I like the idea that I don’t have to manage multiple computers and I have all my stuff with me whether I’m at work, at home or on the road. That said, even at home or when travelling I still don’t really need that laptop keyboard (it kind of sucks on the ASUS ZenBook, btw) unless I’m really doing serious work.

So here’s how I imagine my next PC setup should look (please pardon my graphic skills):

setup

Ideally I want a pretty powerful Intel (as in not ARM) based tablet with a dock and support for external monitors (preferably more than one). So when I go home I take the tablet with me and use it as a consumption/entertainment device at home and when I’m back at the office I just dock it and I’m back in business.

I’m not sure if top of the line Surface will fit the bill when it’s released. Will it be powerful enough? And I’m not sure they’ll have docks. And it seems that it will support only one external monitor. However those touch/type covers would definitely be handy.

So who’s going to build my next PC?

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