Saturday, December 31, 2011

As the world turns...

Well, here it is, the end of another year, and the blogernets will be overflowing with 'What a Year That Was' posts....

It's true we'll never see another like it, simply cos you can't go back (unless you're the Doctor's companion). But the world keeps turning and the sun will rise on 2012 without a jolt or murmur. Yet I will look back briefly, just to see if the monsters have stopped their chase...

I didn't make any new year's resolutions 12 months ago, so I can score 100% for not failing any. That's a good way to start. I'm still alive, and for a guy who has in the past been a step away from depression-related suicide that's also a bonus, although 2011 was not by any means a bad year. I can count my blessings.

For starters I have a wife who has stood by me through difficulties, slow times, unsure times and poor times. Love can inspire passion, but at bedrock it is patient, kind, forgiving, loyal, selfless and hopeful. I can't ask for more.

Work has been slow, with occasional photoshoots (I got to shoot the World's Greatest Treasurer...) and some steady delivery work to bring in the $$. So I'll be looking for something that can inspire me and be enjoyable while earning me a crust.

I've helped some groups and people get books published, and put out some 2012 calendars of my own work.

My trusty iMac crashed, so I had to replace that, which made me think what can I do on an iPad? Is it an expensive toy, or can I do my work on it? After a slow start where the apps seemed geared towards fun rather than functionality, I'm getting to discover that some serious work can be done, even on the original iPad (which is what I got).

I'm a photographer (among other things) so I've been playing with photo apps, and let me tell you, good ones are thin on the ground. The usual suspects are fine and fun - Camera+ and Instagram are great for the 'retro' look that's a craze on the internet. But I need something with a bit more bite, as I usually work with Photoshop, and those apps don't have the chops.

First up I tried Photogene, which has some good controls built in  - but runs out of puff before the finish line. A good try nonetheless. Then, hidden in the deep dark recesses of an app review, was PhotoForge2. Now we have controls for curves, levels, brightness/contrast, HSL, vibrancy, Unsharp Mask, white balance, and more. There's also a plethora of presets that people expect nowadays, to replace photoshop 'actions'. In the mix is a range of camera, film, lens, filter, flash, developer and paper choices! And layers, this app does layers! And it also comes with a multi-level undo. Now this is more like it! All this for $10, and it replaces more than 90% of what I would do in photoshop.

As a printer, I relied heavily on the Pantone PMS colour matching system. The print world revolves around it. But a PMS colour book costs hundreds of dollars, and there's more than one needed. So of course now there's a cheap app from Pantone with all that on board. One gripe I have is you can't do a search, typing in 330 and getting the colour and breakdown with it - seriously, why not? But it does have a good touch for designers, photographers, printers and decorators, you can upload a photo (of say a shop interior) and it will hunt up the PMS colours in that photo. Great for web designers and interior decorators etc. Get it!

For audio work, which  do occasionally for my radio show, I've got most bases covered, except for a decent replacement for Audacity, but I'm hopeful! I have Dragon for converting speech to text, Speak It for converting text to speech, and Translator who knows why as our guests are all English speaking, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. But I do need an app to do serious editing work on sound files and export as mp3's. I'll probably find one next week...

As for fun, I look to the early days of PC games and came up with Retro Pinball, which is Epic Pinball rebuilt for the iPad - seriously awesome :) Then to top it off, I came across that psycho pair, Sam n Max in the game The Penal Zone. Who could ask for more?

So with all its ups and downs, the year hasn't been too bad. The thing is, a lot of this stuff is just things. And things come and go. There's more important stuff that makes life worth living. So when I put my iPad down, life doesn't just stop! People are important, relationships go on, they sustain you, help you think and grow, and come with their own rewards. And above all that, there's a God who has proved to me that he will 'never leave me or forsake me'. He's there in the bright sunlight, he's there in the darkest pit. If I turn my back on him, I can't see him, but he's still there, guarding my back. That's my greatest treasure.

All the best for 2012.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Making it App'en

Although I use Apple computers for preference, my philosophy with phones has always been 'Keep It Simple Stupid'. I don't want a phone that takes photos. I have very decent cameras for that. I don't want a phone that tells me where to go, I have a Melways for that. I don't want a phone that knows all and answers my questions, I have a wife for that! All I want my phone to do is make calls and txts. That's it.

So the world of Apps has been growing around me with no discernible effect. Until now. 

Out of a mixture of curiosity and excess cash (temporary), I bought an iPad. I don't really know why. I certainly don't need one. Everything I do for my business I can do far far better on my iMac. So put it down to mild insanity.

Being part Scottish, I hate to spend list price on anything (and I mean ANYTHING). On the flip side, if something is on special and I don't need it, I may well buy it anyway, 'cos it saves me money! (refer back to the mild insanity part...)

So my iPad is an ex-demo iPad 1 from Apple. Not pre-owned as such, but pre-pawed, if you will. Saved a couple of hundred on it, thank you very much.

But the platform aside, it's the apps that the iPad is all about. Lots of them. Way too many to get all caught up in, as of Dec 2nd, there were 1,000,000 apps to choose from. So I trawled review sites for the low-down on downloading useful apps, just to keep things under control.

I kept my list pretty short, just to give me time to road test the apps and not be overloaded. In trialling them, so far I've only given two apps the flick, so prior research pays. The ones I'm left with are pretty good, but I'd love to hear from my readers what apps you guys find useful and fun....

To begin with, I went for apps that were free (that Scottish thing again), but a few apps I paid a dollar or two for.

I began using the 'Notes' app that came pre-installed, but soon switched to 'Evernote' as it synchs with my desktop computer. It will synch with yours too, whether you use Apple, or some monstrosity from the dark side :) It also can handle pdf's, pictures and websites pages.

I'm a reader (I used to read a book a day, for years), so this whole ebook thing is a boon. So yes, I have iBooks, and a few free novels on board. I also have Kobo, which isn't as intuitive. But it's great to have the flexibility to read books from all 'camps' and not have to own three different readers.

Being a photographer, I wanted some photo apps. I know, I know, the iPad 1 doesn't have a camera... But I have a dozen perfectly good cameras, both film and digital, so why can't I just upload pics onto my iPad? Well, I had to figure that one out myself, apparently MOST iPad users get one with a camera if they want to take photos, go figure! So after some experimenting, I found you CAN upload photos via an attachment for either an SD card or memory stick ($30 at Apple thanks very much). So you plug in your memory doohicky and the pre-installed photo app will upload the photos of your choice. 

Then you can use apps like Camera+ to manipulate them with a variety of built in 'styles', which is a bit of fun. It ain't photoshop, but none of them are, even the app from Adobe. But its fun and it works. One tip though... once you're done manipulating, make sure you 'Save' before you 'Share' or your pic will be a useless bunch of blurred pixels. Once 'saved' though, the resolution will be fine.

For those addicted to social media (and who isn't) the best app out there by far would be Flipboard. It's a home base for all your social media sites, and it does a lot more too.... First up, it works, visually, like a magazine. So if someone posts on facebook a link to a website, then pictures or video on that site are featured prominently, along with the lead paragraph of the story. And you can flip through facebook, twitter etc like a magazine, which becomes a visual feast for the user. AND if that's not enough, you can also choose a host of other services to include in Flipboard, alongside your social media sites. So I have News streams, Time magazine, Tech news, National Geo, Gizmodo, Dark Roasted Blend and more, all updating with their latest, and it was all  FREE.

When I go to church, I usually choose if I take a nice modern language Bible, or my trusty 'direct translation' version with me. Now I just take my iPad, cos its got both on board. I trialled a couple of 'Bible' apps, and the one that won me is simply called 'Bible'. Put out by YouVersion, it can access a huge range of versions wirelessly, or you can download them for use when your out of network range (which I often am). So I've got the NASB (for purists) and The Message locked and loaded. You can change the text size, and also have a 'low-light' option so the screen doesn't spotlight you if you're in a darkened auditorium.

I'm a news junkie, or more correctly, a newspaper junkie. I've had newsprint on my hands since I left school back in the 70's. I've printed them, done the layout, hunted up stories, taken photos, made up headlines, designed them from the ground up, owned them, published them, distributed them, and loved them. So of course, I had to have some newspapers on board. The best Australian paper (no arguments here, I'm right) is The Age. When I got it it was free, and I download The Age every day. You have access to all the stories, and galleries of photos (which I love, being a photographer). One small point, the Green Guide on Thursday has the articles, but not the TV guide - maybe cos I'm on the free version? Overall a marvelous app for news junkies.

Other news sources I keep up with via apps are: the ABC news. This app has access to all the news coming from the ABC, but the layout isn't as clear as The Age app, although the content is excellent.

Then there's SBS World News. Again, the content is up to the standard you would expect from SBS, but the layout is messy. Finding particular stories is harder than it need be.

I also have The Onion, satirical news from America. As their standard news outlets are too right-wing to be taken seriously, you might as well get the satire from people who know how to do it right! When is Fox News gonna realise they exist just to give comedians new material?

So that's news, what about magazines? Plenty out there, and I have AU Magazine, which seems to come out monthly, and has a great standard of layout and visual appeal to go with the written content. Not so much a lifestyle mag, but interviews with a large cross section of people/achievers here in Australia. Great stuff.

As I mentioned before, I like to get things for free, so when I saw I could get Inpress for free, I jumped at it. Very handy not just for an extensive gig guide, but as I do a radio show or two, the up to date info is a boon.

From the same camp as Inpress, you can also get Time Off, another music and band review mag. Also there's Three Magazine, only available on iPad (no print version), aimed at 'youth', its visually attractive, inoffensive, nicely interactive and surprisingly instructional.

Everyone raves about GarageBand. So I will too. Not because I'm a musician and know how to get the best out of it, but I've had musician friends run my iPad battery down playing with it. They love it. Get it.

Hate typing? Get Dragon Dictation. It's the best speech to text app, as they've been in the business for years and have all the bugs ironed out.

Want to play your music on your iPad? With Audiogalaxy you can get your music streamed from your computer to your iPad. It works, but seems to slow down your desktop while its running. But it does give you access to all your music without taking up room on your iPad's flash memory storage.

I have a guitar. I'm not sure why. Maybe I could learn to play it one day.... In the meantime, I have Guitar Tuner, which is a great little app to help you tune your 6 string accoustic to a variety of tunings, including standard, Drop D, Open D, Open G, Open A and more. Its great :)

Lastly, I have Wikipanion, which gives you access to search Wikipedia for answers to life, the universe and everything.

Let me know what apps you use, love or loath....