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Launch Center Pro: a review after a week - my glass eye // news

Last week I installed AppCubby’s Launch Center Pro for iPhone (App Store link) after it got some good write-ups in the tech press. It’s described as ‘speed dial’ for your apps, giving you an alternative way of organising and launching your most-used apps more conveniently.

It’s not just a launcher, though. The headline attractions are ‘action hooks’ in certain apps that give you a shortcut to a function of the app. For example, you can set one-tap shortcuts for launching directly into a new Omnifocus note, a new Instagram snap or a new Tweetbot tweet.

Some apps offer more hooks than others. Evernote, for example, offers none other than launching the app itself, whereas Tweetbot offers a shortcut to pretty much every screen in the app. This is done by use of valid URLs within the app code so support has to be built in by app developers, not AppCubby. More on that later.

First impressions

It’s such a tantalising notion, to completely change how you use your iPhone. At first I found that although it’s easy to design your own LCP setup for quick launching, unless you have use for the actions available you may not see much point in it.

To make an example of Evernote, if the app is already on your homescreen (or your dock) and you put it on the top level of LCP, you’ll actually tap more times to get the same result.

(With the app on your Homescreen you tap Evernote to launch, then tap ‘New Note’; in Launch Center Pro you tap to launch LCP, tap Evernote to launch, tap ‘New Note’.)

On the other hand, if you regularly use a core collection of productivity apps like Things, Omnifocus, Tweetbot, Drafts, Simplenote, that sort of thing, and throughout the day you’re constantly jumping in and out of them, making notes or sharing links or whatever, clever setup of LCP could streamline a significant amount of that use and save you enough time and taps to really feel the benefit.

I’m not quite a power user but I am a sucker for experimenting with new and more efficient ways to play with my phone so I’ve spent the last week using LCP and tweaking my setup. Here’s a look at how I’ve been using it and what I’ve noticed.

Customisation

The UI is attractive and well thought out with plenty of room for customisation, which is where Launch Center Pro comes into it’s own. The tap-swipe-release method for accessing the second layer (where you keep groups of Actions) is particularly nice, making it feel like you’re only tapping once. Get fast at that and it begins to feel more like you’re performing gestures to launch apps rather than searching them out and stabbing at them.

I’ve tweaked my layout so many times, moving apps around until they find their intuitive home under my thumb. This could very well have changed by tomorrow (and in fact it changed between writing this and capturing the screenshots) but today my layout looks like this:

As you can see, in the folders I’ve tried to place actions so that they won’t be obscured by my thumb – I tend to hold the phone in my right hand most often as I keep it in my right jeans pocket.

Switching into edit mode brings up a neat blueprint background while you rearrange the furniture, and you can go into the icons for every action or folder and create new ones to suit your taste or the way your brain works.

For my ‘Wife HQ’ screen I gave phone buttons a metallic look and messaging icons a pinstripe, and stuck to the colours that iOS uses for those functions; when placing apps I try to keep it intuitive, for example by putting Hipstamatic in the same space in a folder as Instagram occupies on the home screen.

So now my Home screen now looks like this:

It’s so calm there now. I had the phone in the dock too but eventually realised I only really call my wife and that’s covered, so I moved it out. It’s just that gorgeous metallic LCP icon now, twinkling at me wherever I am.

Of course, all the apps have to go somewhere…

I changed all my folder names from things like ‘Productivity’ to these verb-focussed titles as I read it was more intuitive, and so far it’s working out well. I put my games on a third screen because I wanted to keep that aspect a little apart from the rest of the phone. And I really wish I could hide Newsstand without a hack.

Launch speed

Launch Center Pro almost always launches incredibly fast. Like, tap it and you’re in, that fast. Maybe loads faster if you’re using it often enough that it’s never pushed completely from memory, but a few times on launch the screen would remain blank for a couple of seconds – the most infuriatingly long couple of seconds, at that. Or, my layout would appear but was unresponsive momentarily.

It didn’t happen every day, but a couple of days it happened a couple of times. It’s not enough to let the side down, though. 95% of the time the only thing slowing me down was my own brain and my poised thumb as I adjusted to using LCP regularly.

App compatibility

LCP works with any apps that employ valid URL systems in their code; it detects compatible installed apps and adds them to it’s list of Actions. As noted above, some developers employ more URLs than others, but many don’t appear to at all. One major omission for me is Money, by Jumsoft, which I launch many times a day. For this reason Money is now the only third party app left on my Home screen.

Since I installed it I’ve noticed at least a dozen apps appearing in the list that weren’t there at first. Not sure if this is because I downloaded updates to them or that LCP just didn’t get through with scanning my iPhone at first. At this point 51 apps out of 95 installed are compatible in some way, including Apple apps.

Well, some of them.

Apple doesn’t always play ball

After the release of the original Launch Center, which hooked directly into system settings like the 3G toggle and Brightness control, Apple withdrew access to a lot of their own app URLs. For example, there’s nothing at all for their Clock, Notes or Camera apps, but you can launch Music, Calendar and Reminders, amongst others.

You also can’t launch the Phone, Mail or Message apps but you can set an action that allows you type in a name or number and immediately email, call or message that person, bypassing the front end of the respective app. I’ve used this to turn it a one-tap hub for contacting my wife, which is really cool, but otherwise it’s quicker for me to use these apps ‘the old fashioned way’.

Drafts is a perfect partner

Drafts (App Store link) is a great app by Agile Tortoise that I’d not heard of before installing LCP, but they complement each other perfectly. It’s a simple notes app with the killer feature of being able to send the text to a wide range of apps and sharing services – I suppose you could call it Launch Center Pro for text – and it turns out it’s better for getting notes into Evernote through LCP than Evernote is.

I recently switched to Evernote from Simplenote because I can keep more kinds of stuff in it, but for text alone Simplenote is faster to use and easier to search and I miss that. Drafts, especially kept on the top page of LCP, gets me into a new note immediately and sends it to Evernote with one tap; I could even send it to Simplenote too if I wanted, or Day One, Tweetbot, Echofon, Mail, Messages, Agenda, Dropbox, Facebook, Omnifocus… and of course each note is saved and searchable in Drafts itself.

With Drafts on the left and Reminders on the right my bottom row is dedicated to capturing something quickly, be it an idea, an Instagram, or something I need to do.

Brightness

Although LCP can’t launch the Brightness setting, AppCubby have made a workaround that lets you set brightness values to buttons; the compromise is that whenever the screen locks it resets to the value set on the official Brightness slider in Settings.

One way to take advantage of this is to set the Brightness slider to something comfortable for normal use, then in LCP set a button for bright daylight, one for night time, one set to the same as the slider value, and maybe a button that toggles between medium-low and medium-high. Then you can switch to your bright setting if you’re in daylight and either switch back when you go inside or if your screen locked in between it resets anyway.

In the end I found that diving into LCP to find the brightness buttons every time I was outside was not worth the hassle versus however much battery is allegedly spent leaving Auto-Brightness turned on, which serves my needs fine.

Flashlight

One of the built-in hooks on offer turns on the flash, effectively giving you a flashlight app for free. In occasional use over the week I found it was way quicker than any flashlight app I’d used so it got pride of place on the top screen.

Search

The built-in Search hook takes any text you enter and sends it to Google in Mobile Safari. It may not be that much less effort than doing the same through Safari but the momentary pauses waiting for Safari to get up to speed can make it feel longer than doing it through LCP. If you’re an Alfred or Launchbar user it feels a lot like using that as your Search box.

The stuff I haven’t mentioned

There’s plenty of other uses I haven’t touched on. For example, if you visit some sites in Safari regularly a Bookmarks group would be perfect for you; I use RSS to keep track of favourite sites so I skipped that.

Alternatively, you might want to delve into the Custom URL tool that lets you build your own hooks if you know the language. There’s so many actions available already, however, that I barely touched it except to try and trick the Clock app into working; I failed.

You could even set up a whole folder of stock-response emails; say you’re the company IT guy and people are always emailing you about their computer not working, you could have a ‘switch it off and on again’ email saved to a button, with just an address required. Or, if you’re a particularly tardy person, you could set up a whole range of ‘excuse’ emails that are always just a tap away.

I’m sure there’s even more stuff you could set it up for that just doesn’t apply to me, so I can’t think of it right now.

A week later

It was a slow start for me but I love it, especially since adding Drafts as well. I’ve got the layout pretty much how I like it and just need to get a bit of muscle memory going on. As I’ve mentioned before, LCP has a very distinct feel; from the visual feel of the buttons to the physical feel of tapping, sliding and releasing (sometimes without looking), it feels good.

It really boils down to how you use your phone and if Launch Center Pro can do some of the lifting for you. It has a definite target market and if none of the above features have sounded appealing then you’re probably not it.

If your interest has been piqued, though, just go ahead and buy it and start putting together your own shortcuts. Play with the setup, move buttons around, tweak it how you like it, and enjoy using your phone a new way.


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