iOS & Mac reviews

Coffitivity review: perfect for working from home

coffitivityCoffitivity is a free app that recreates the ambience of a coffee shop with three different audio tracks to match the mood you want to create. It’s completely free and available for iOS, Mac and Android, or you can load up in your browser and play the sounds from there. And it’s had a huge impact on my ability to focus when working from home, so I highly recommend it.


I’m a freelance photographer so I should be good at focussing, right? Ba-dum-TSH, here all week folks, try the veal.

Seriously though, I spend a lot of my free time kicking around the house either relaxing with Netflix or a game, doing chores, or, most problematically, studiously avoiding doing chores. When I’m on a job somewhere, surrounded by other people also working, I have zero distraction issues but at home, alone, in silence, I have a serious problem with procrastination and distractions, particularly when it comes to doing certain computer tasks.

I recognise my procrastination and avoidance issues and I’ve got a number of tools and personal processes to combat them: I’ve made jotting down anything I remember I need to do in Things much more of a habit, meaning I can stop worrying about what things I might have forgotten to do and just get on with doing them; I keep our budget spending updated daily using the YNAB iPhone app; I try to remember to turn off distractions like Safari, Mail and Tweetbot when I sit down to do computer work; and I keep an Rdio playlist of gentle jazz handy as background noise.

Turns out background noise has a much bigger impact on my ability to focus than I thought and reassuringly there’s scientific research backing this up. When I sit down to tackle something that needs to be done in the lonely silence of our flat my mind wanders and has a terrible habit of dredging up all sorts of negative emotions, drawing on past negative situations, and projecting negative futures, all of which scare me off making decisions and taking action by making me afraid of how I might fail, and how it’s easier to just avoid failure than it is to face up to the possibility of it occurring.

Pretty heavy, huh? Well that’s a post for another day. Right now I want to tell you about the simplest step that made the biggest difference to my focus and my mental attitude when I sit down to work: installing Coffitivity.

Coffee shop ambiance, at home

Music has always been my first recourse to silencing the silence of our empty flat, but that can be a distraction in itself. Do I want to put on the same old playlist? Find something new? But what genre? Nothing too pop, rock or dance. Nothing too atmospheric in case it’s depressing (so no Clint Mansell soundtracks then). I could spend half an hour idly flicking through Rdio, then hop onto Safari to research ‘work at home’ playlist suggestions… And before you know it I’ve run out of time allotted for the original task.

The ambiance provided by Coffitivity seems to let me get right into the task at hand, puts me In The Zone. I tried it for the first time a couple of days ago and spent the next five hours without distraction compiling the year’s expenses for my tax return, something I’ve been putting off since April. Sure, I had to do it this month anyway, but surrounded by other (imaginary) people all doing their own thing, working away and supping coffee and getting on with it, I got started and… enjoyed the process of working. It’s like a human version of ‘white noise’, that somehow keeps my brain marching forward following the map rather than wandering off into the shadowy forest of distraction.

The details

Once installed the app lives in the menubar. Click to reveal the drop-down menu, pick a track, set the volume and hit play. You can have it launch at login, and there’s a ‘one-click’ mode to play or pause whenever you click the menubar icon, with a right-click revealing the drop-down.

The icon itself is the coffee cup from the logo. It’s black and grey when not in use and turns a kind of aquamarine colour and presents a swirl of steam while a track is playing. I’d love an option to set it to black to match my other menubar icons, though.

The tracks are different enough from each other to suit various moods and are all long enough that the looping won’t start to grate. However, I noticed that when they looped it was a noticeably hard cut back to the beginning rather than a crossfade, which takes the sheen off the illusion somewhat. The University Undertones track in particular had a 1-2 second pause when it looped – ouch.

Still – it’s free, and these things can be fixed with small updates. All in all, while you may well be able to find similar background sounds in other ambience apps, Coffitivity does one thing and does it well. I’d love a more modern icon and would welcome a couple more tracks but those would just be an extra syrup shot in an already excellent cup of virtual joe. It works for me – I highly recommend it!

Download Coffitivity for iOS
Download Coffitivity for Mac

iOS & Mac reviews

iPhone review: Stow – a slick packing checklist app

stow packing app

I like apps that do one thing really well, which is the main reason I really like Stow (£1.49), a checklist app dedicated to packing for a trip. I’ve already got plenty of apps that could fulfil that function such as Drafts, Simplenote, Things, or Reminders, but they’re all either too general and lack features, or are focussed on different sorts of checklists.

If you don’t travel much then any one of those apps would do the job for the occasional packing list but Stow provides certain features dedicated to the needs of the regular suitcase lugger like template lists, weather-specific suggestions, a departure countdown, list-sharing options and a button to ‘unpack all’ when you arrive at your destination so you can check it all off again before you return, which is very handy.

It even automatically adds the right number of underpants and socks based on your travel dates – unless you tell it you’ll be doing laundry while you’re there.

The app has a clean look and feel, using left and right swipes of the screen when in List mode to bring up more options or add new items, with a few of the most important functions in a bar along the bottom of each screen. It’s cannily avoided going the skeuomorphic route so it’ll fit in well with iOS 7 – although the icon is a deliciously pushable button.


While Stow would evidently be very useful for the frequent traveller, I don’t travel that much. Instead, I got Stow to see if I could use it as an equipment checklist when I’m packing for photography shoots. I’ve taken a few minutes to pretty much empty the pre-loaded item pool, removing all the stuff for golf, ski and city trips, adding a new category called Camera Equipment and filling it with every bit of kit I own from cameras and lenses down to tripod mounting plates. Then I saved a new template list called Photo Shoots that contained the lot, plus a few other essentials like ‘phone’.

Now when I have a shoot I fire up Stow, start a new ‘trip’ and pick the Photo Shoot template. It loads all those items into a new list and I remove any that I’m not going to need for this particular job. In future I might create more specialised template lists; for example, a portrait shoot will likely call for my strobes, lighting stands, umbrellas and softboxes, whereas on a unit stills job I can leave all that lot at home but I’ll need to remember my Sound Blimp.

Again, it’s nothing I couldn’t have tapped into Reminders or even done with a pencil and paper but knowing that I’ve got all my kit saved into Stow’s list templates reassures me that I’ll not forget to add something obvious to my list, like I might if I was having to write it out fresh each time.


There are a few little bugs and niggles that still need ironing out. For example, sometimes Packed checkmarks don’t display when you reload the app, but reappear when you switch to the ‘unpacked’ or ‘everything’ tab and back; I occasionally had trouble getting the ‘hold to delete’ function to register my touch correctly, and when adding items to a list sometimes the counter next to each item would zero as I scrolled down past it.

The item name rows are quite short, only displaying 13 characters in the item pool screen because of the add and remove buttons, so if you’ve got a lot of items with long names (such as ‘Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens’) you’ll have to use some abbreviations (such as ‘Lens 24-70’) to make it easier navigating the list.

Everything is ordered alphabetically which is definitely the best default but I’d like to be able to tap an Edit button and move things around if I want. For example, I’d like to be able to put my cameras, batteries and memory cards together at the top of the list. This is possible with a bit of crafty renaming to game the sorting system but it’s messy.

A bigger bother for me is that you can’t tap the iPhone status bar to jump back to the top of a list. I found myself trying to do this again and again, particularly at the bottom of a list and wanting to search for the next item – Search is at the top, so you have to ‘swipe and swipe and swipe and swipe, and type’, instead of ‘tap, and type’. Annoying.

To conclude

Despite those niggles I do really like Stow and it’s definitely worth a look if you’re after a packing checklist app. It’s not quite what I was looking for (an equipment checklist app specifically for photographers) but its customisability let me bend it to my needs while taking advantage of all the packing-focussed features, and the design strikes just the right balance between simple and clever in an iOS7- friendly package. And as a bonus, next time I go on holiday I’ll already have a packing app ready to go.

iOS & Mac reviews

London tube apps: three of the best

I spend a lot of my time travelling around London on the underground. It might not be the cheapest way to get about but it’s almost always the fastest and most efficient – unless you happen to have a helicopter at your disposal! Unfortunately you can easily get caught out if your preferred route shuts down either for engineering works or faulty signals – we’ve all been there, and it sucks if you find out too late, so I use a selection of excellent London tube apps to make it all a bit less hassle and a bit more fun:

This is going to be a pretty lengthy review of each of these apps, so if you’re pressed for time here’s the lowdown: Tube Tracker and Tube Deluxe both do pretty much the same job of planning your route, finding nearby stations and tracking those pesky delays with a custom update pushed to your phone and while I personally favour Tube Tracker I can recommend you try out both; and Tube Exits is a genius app that tells you which carriage to get on to arrive directly opposite the station exist, shaving minutes off your journey especially during rush hour.

This post is ready to depart, please mind the closing doors…

Tube Tracker

Tube Tracker (£1.99) is definitely my favourite right now. I was already using Tube Deluxe and didn’t notice it until it launched version 2 in January 2013 with a big redesign in favour of a distinctive, flatter sort of look which I really like. It feels different to a lot of iOS 6 utility apps, going for neither a heavily skeuomorphic design, nor one that uses much, if any, of the standard iOS 6 glossiness.

london tube apps tube tracker

Tools are collected in tabs along the bottom. First up, Stations presents a list of the nearest stations to you, each accompanied by a live compass arrow to point you in the right direction. Tapping a station name presents TfL live departure information (where available – as with all apps using TfL’s data, if it’s not available the app can’t do anything about that), while drilling down into particular trains presents an almost-live depiction of their location on the line which is pretty cool.

Maps is self-explanatory offering both a local, searchable copy of the official London Tube Map, and a Google map of the surrounding area along with a handy ‘5/15/30 minute walk’ radius. There’s no single-line maps like you find inside the tube trains themselves.

tube tracker lines plan

Lines displays the line status as you’d find on TfL’s Live Status web page but tap the clock in the top right and a timeline slider drops down, letting you swipe through the calendar and monitor planned engineering disruptions for the next three months all on one page. This is a good design choice – the other app I look at below splits the date selector and results across two pages, which is much less useful.

Plan uses TfL’s Journey Planner API to deliver results presented as neat swipe-able cards which drop into view. You can share the route with friends via email, or flip the card for a Google map complete with directions. A limited planning mode between stations only is available offline, and it saves every plan you create for reference any time, online or not.

While it remembers plenty of recently used stations and locations for your convenience there’s currently no ‘Favourites’ feature, nor an option to choose which methods of TfL transport the planner takes into account. However, I asked the developer, Andy Drizen, and he confirmed both are on the list for updates.

tube tracker alerts

Finally, the More tab hides the settings and developer support details, as well as the Alerts tool that lets you choose which lines to watch and at what times during the day you want to be notified about problems on them.

Tube Tracker has a few fancy tricks up its sleeve such as live-updating lists of every train running on every line, and the ability to send a train-tracking link to friends running the app. They’re not essential but they’re fun and kind of geeky. But there’s a couple more features I really love.

tube tracker launch Center pro

Firstly, official custom URL support: Andy has added custom URL schemes you can use to create actions in apps like Launch Center Pro that take you directly to certain screens in the app such as a particular Line status or a pre-filled Plan request.

For example, I worked out my home location as a GPS coordinate and used the instructions to build a ‘Plan Home’ action for LCP that will open Tube Tracker and automatically work out a route home from wherever I am with just a couple of taps. I borrowed the idea from the second app I talk about below, but that’s the beauty of URL support.

(If you’re interested in Launch Center Pro I wrote about it here.)

london tube apps tube tracker status board

And the other hidden gem in Tube Tracker is official Panic Status Board support. Tube Tracker is Universal which is nice but it looks best on the compact screen of the iPhone. However, if you’ve got Status Board installed and want something like the picture above you should visit this page to start setting up your very own Tube Tracker departure board, or read a bit more about what’s possible over at Panic’s blog.

It’s this kind of cool stuff that gets me excited about using an app to do something as mundane as plan my tube journeys, so Tube Tracker is now my favourite tube app and my top recommendation.

However, if you’d like to try a different take on the same sort of thing may I recommend you have a look at…

Tube Deluxe

London Tube Deluxe (69p), by Malcolm Barclay, was my go-to tube app for years, one of the first apps I ever got actually. While it appears to fulfil largely the same purpose as Tube Tracker, or vice versa, it has it’s own handy features you might consider.

At first look it’s fairly plain, but maybe you like that. Tube Deluxe’s look and feel is very much the iOS 6 standard, familiar table layouts, pinstripes, header bars and buttons. It’s done well and feels solid.

tube deluxe status maps

Down in the navigation tabs we start with Status, which provides line updates and access to custom Alerts. One advantage over Tube Tracker is the ability to re-order the lines to put your most-used at the top of the display. This would be a good screen to also view future disruption plans, as in Tube Tracker, but they’re hidden elsewhere.

Maps offers separate offline maps for the Underground, every individual Underground line, Overground, DLR, Tramlink and all rail connections, everything you’ll need. There’s also a geolocating Google map available but again it’s hidden elsewhere rather than being accessible from the Maps tab. One nit-pick: unlike Tube Tracker there’s no ability to search the map – you have to zoom in and scroll around looking for the station you want.

tube deluxe plan

The Plan tab offers as near as dammit the most complete Journey Planner experience on the iPhone. After setting the usual travel info you can dive into the settings to adjust preferred modes of transport, preferred numbers of connections, maximum walking and cycling distances, mobility requirements, and save Favourite locations. Tube Tracker doesn’t yet have this level of customisation.

The killer feature here is the built-in Plan Home button. Set up a Home location in Favourites and when you’re out and about and completely lost, tap this button and the app plans a route back home from wherever you are, just like that. Now that’s magic. It doesn’t work offline, but you can’t have everything and that’s what offline maps are for.

(Yes, that’s the function I nicked for my Tube Tracker/LCP action, which perfectly makes up for TT not nicking the idea itself.)

tube deluxe departures

Moving on, the Departures tab provides live station arrival and departure information from TfL, and as such it’s about as accurate as Tube Tracker, just less the fun display of the train moving between stations. There’s also no option to save favourite stations although you can quickly select the last four recently-viewed ones.

It seems odd that favourite stations from elsewhere don’t apply here, especially as I can easily push my ‘home’ station off the recently-viewed list in a day, and searching for it again involves a lot of tapping and swiping

tube deluxe london bus routes

Tucked away in More are various bits that didn’t fit elsewhere, including the Google map, a plain list of nearby stations, and planned closures by line and date (which splits the info and the date selection over two screens, awkwardly).

But there’s also a couple of invaluable hidden gems: full timetables of all TfL transport sorted by station, transit type, and date; and most pleasingly a comprehensive London bus route list with all stops for every route laid out on a Google map with geolocation so you can follow your bus journey and know when to get off.

These last two things are the sole content of some other apps, and it’s just tucked away in the back here!

So… Tube Tracker or Tube Deluxe?

It’s clear these two do pretty much the same things but right now I just love using Tube Tracker the most, for the look and feel, the more logical and efficient (to my mind) layout of features, and definitely all the really cool stuff like live compasses, train tracking, and Launch Center Pro and Status Board support. It makes navigating London by tube feel fun.

But for the completist in you, Tube Deluxe is unofficially pretty much TfL In Your Pocket in a familiar iOS 6 uniform. It just needs a bit of a feature reshuffle and then I want to see how it takes to iOS 7. And to be fair that’s probably what most app designers are thinking about at this very moment.

My solution to the conundrum faced by those seeking the best experience for their money is… get both! £2.68 buys you both the coolest and the safest pair of hands for travelling London both above and below ground. That’s less than the price of a Zone 1-2 peak single so you know what to do.

I use both of these in combination with this third app to master the tube and become a London Underground Ninja…

Tube Exits

Tube Exits (69p) – if there’s one app that emerged in the initial ‘there’s an app for that’ goldrush that made me sit up and go "Why didn’t I think of that?" it was this one. Believe me when I tell you that once you’ve used this app a few times you will curse yourself when you forget to.

london tube exits screenshot

You tell it your route (just the start and end will do, it does everything else) and it tells you exactly which carriage to get on at each station so that when you change lines or arrive at your destination, when the doors slide open you’re always right next to the appropriate exit. It also provides the latest line status and a tube map

If you’re a tube traveller yet to experience being at the wrong end of a platform at rush hour, get this app and spare yourself the misery. If you have, you’ve probably not even finished reading this page before heading to the App Store – you’re welcome!

By the way if you’re planning a trip to Paris or Berlin you can also pick up local versions for those cities – Paris Metro Exits, and Berlin U-Bahn Exits.

In summary

Do what I do and combine Tube Exits with either Tube Tracker or Tube Deluxe and you’ll pretty much have London transport cracked. You’ll know which lines have delays, what route you need to take, and which carriages to get on for the quickest transfers and exit. Sorted!

iOS & Mac how-tos

Migrating from Google Reader

July has arrived, almost, and that means Google Reader has just days left. If you haven’t taken steps to migrate your RSS data out of Google Reader, now’s the time.

The best solution is to download a backup of your subscriptions from Google Reader to import to whichever Reader alternative you go for. You can also simply sign in to Feedly with Google Authentication and they’ll automatically import the same info to their new cloud system.

I recommend you do both:

Download your feeds from Google Reader

Log in to Google Takeout and select Choose Services, then select Reader in the list. Click Create Archive, wait until it’s compiled, and download the file.

You can import this file into one of the new RSS sync services that’s springing up to take Reader’s place; more on those in a second.

Auto-import to Feedly

This is a quick backup plan but also serves as the easiest way to get started come June 1st. Head over to, or on a mobile device grab their app (iOS or Android), and log in with Google Authentication.

Until July 1st this will give Feedly access to your Reader feeds as per usual, but it will also automatically sync those feeds over to Feedly’s own cloud service in the background. When Reader shuts down, you can continue to log in to Feedly with Google Auth but all your feeds will now be served by Feedly.

Feedly google reader sync

End result, you now have a copy of your feeds you can take anywhere, and a Feedly sync option already set up to use in any of the apps that currently support it.

Which RSS service and apps to use?

Three of the big syncing services are Feedly (free), Feed Wrangler or Feedbin (both paid) but the decider will likely be how you want to read your feeds because not all apps support every sync option.

Lex Friedman at Macworld has got you covered with a look at all of the RSS services and some of the best apps. One very good point he makes is that Feedly being free should be a red flag:

To me, that’s a knock against it. If Google—Google!—couldn’t figure out a way to monetize this kind of service, I’m not sure anyone can.

I’m waiting to see which of the paid options offers the best experience before I put down money, although to be honest neither are remotely ‘expensive’ for the peace of mind a paid service offers, but for now I’m running with Feedly for feed syncing.

I’ll be able to keep using Reeder on the iPhone but I’ll have to switch to something else on my iPad and my Macs as neither of those versions of Reeder supports Feedly yet. I’ve decided to try out the much-recommended Mr Reader on my iPad, and… Well, nothing on my Macs. I’ve found that since getting iOS devices that I use my Macs much more for work than for play so not even having the temptation for procrastination via feed-refreshing might be a good thing.

If you’re dependant on a Mac reading option the newly released Readkit ($4.99) supports Feed Wrangler and Feedbin, and Feedly works in your browser of choice, but there’s precious little else supporting it right now on Macs.

Not long now… Goodbye, Google Reader!


Poster for WordPress bought by Automattic

One of my favourite iOS apps, Poster (I’m using it to post this!), is no longer available having been bought by Automattic, the company run by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweng, and removed from the App Store.

I’m happy for Tom Witkin, Poster’s developer, because it’s great when a one-man operation is validated by the very company whose own consistently Godawful app he sought to improve upon, but I fear that this was an acqui-hire and that the stuff that made Poster great won’t make it into the official WordPress app any time soon. I’d love to be proved wrong.

Here’s what I loved about Poster, that I’d like to see in the official WordPress app as soon as possible:

– shortcuts for tags
– TextExpanderTouch support
– custom URL workflow support, Drafts/Launch Center Pro style
– custom fields
– Markdown support
– 1Password login support
– a clean, lightweight UI

Believe it or not the official WordPress app doesn’t have any of those features at present; it’s consistently and ironically been the worst option for posting to WordPress from iOS, which of course makes this acquisition so valuable for them.

I hope I’m not disappointed, and that Tom is allowed to do to their app what he did so well with Poster, as well as more new and exciting things.

When Simplenote was bought by Automattic they kept it running and vowed not to interfere, but no such luck with Poster. However, obviously it makes more sense in this case to retire Poster and bring the developer in-house to polish the product he was successfully competing against. I just hope they actually let him do that.

RIP, Poster. You will live on as long as possible on my phone and iPad. And congratulations/fingers-crossed to Tom Witkin!