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Mark Myerson

Avid photographer of no note whatsoever, and professional Facebook loather.

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Whether you’re reading a riveting novella, an insightful piece of long-form journalism, or the latest post from your favourite blogger, the written word has the ability to capture the imagination and make long, tedious journeys just slip away. In modern times, though, reading has become more than just words on a page or screen. A plethora of apps is available to make books more social, and news better suited to your interests.

To narrow down your options only to those that are worthy of a download, I’ve compiled a list of the most innovative social reading and news recommendation apps that the Play Store has to offer.

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Email is the arena for an almighty battle of innovation right now. Ever since Mailbox introduced its shiny new side-swipe sorting to iOS, there have been innumerable reinventions of the veteran communication platform, with new clients arriving, by the bucket-load, on pretty much every OS.

Android has been no exception to this rush — in fact, it has been at the forefront. Google, itself, has made the official Gmail app a market leader in terms of intuitive design, whilst apps such as SolMail and Dextr are well-made alternatives, each with a slightly different approach to inbox sifting and sorting. There are plenty more where those came from, as well.

Take new email client, CloudMagic, for example. With a sleek interface and all the usual tricks of the email 2.0 trade, it looks like a great, free download. But how does it measure up to the fierce competition?

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In terms of photo styling, I’ve always been a purist. I have a passionate dislike of HDR (other than when it is a necessity of commercial photography), and I think Instagram‘s filters ruin every image they are applied to. In photographic terms, I believe that a great image is taken with a lens, not constructed with an app.

But that’s not to say that all styling is bad. The subtler effects of Vignette can bring out the natural tones in a beautiful landscape, and many folks add nicely designed overlays to their images to create a kind of photo-based artwork. I’m averse to neither technique.

So PicLab looks — from its Play Store description, at least – like my type of photo app. With a focus on text and image overlays, rather than filtering, it’s clear that this image styler is aimed at classy presentation. Does it have the quality to be a worthwhile download, though?

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VSCO Cam: The New Standard of Android Photography

The recent release of the Nexus 5 marked an important landmark in Android phoneography. The physical camera hardware in Google’s latest flagship phone is not a great improvement on the Nexus’ predecessor, but the overall photographic quality of the new handset, particularly after the 4.4.1 software update, shows that Google is taking mobile photography seriously. At last.

Developers are playing their part, too. Both Android-specific apps, such as Vignette, and iOS imports, such as PicLab, provide good quality, classy editing options on an OS that only had Instagram to play with, not so long ago.

But now, things have gone up another level. VSCO Cam, the self-proclaimed “standard of mobile photography” has exited private beta, and it is now ready to bring its comprehensive adjustments and subtle retro cool to our side of the mobile divide. But can this legend of iPhoneography successfully make the transition to Android?

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The personalization of news is a nice idea. It should strip out unrequired stories, leaving behind only those pieces of writing that excite, educate or entertain — AppStorm posts, for instance.

But in my experience, most tailored news apps tend to be a bit…meh. They certainly filter, but rarely with the desired result. Some try to sort stories by keyword — always an inaccurate, spam-ridden approach — while others simply provide broad brushstroke subjects, gathering plenty of content you would otherwise avoid.

So, I’m interested to see how Material, an app which claims to deliver news that is tailored to each user, copes with this challenge. The product of an accomplished developer (Inq), Material has recently been updated with a sleek new design and a batch of new features; critically, though, can it deliver a great mix of content?

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Readmill: A Synced, Social Home of Reading

Books are amazing. They can thrill, sadden, educate, inspire and amuse with only the words they hold. For bookworms like me, the introduction of e-reading only further broadened the opportunities to be captivated by prose, particularly given the considerable selection of public domain titles which are freely available to download.

There are quite a few apps which provide access to these ebooks, as well as offering the option to sync your reading progress between multiple devices — Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle being the most prominent examples to be found in the Play Store. Over on iOS, though, another e-reading app has been making all the waves.

It goes by the name of Readmill, and it has already gained a cult following. Now, it has landed on Android – but does it have enough to push aside more familiar Play Store offerings?

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Whether I’m working or relaxing, tuning in or tuning out, music is a constant in my daily routine. As is typical of a library-based listener, my soundtrack is a mix of old favourites and newer additions, but usually, nothing absolutely fresh flows through my speakers or earphones. Once in a while, though, I break this mould.

There are several routes which new music takes on its way to my eardrums. I listen to local commercial radio, for example. Radio stations will always provide a wider scope of tracks than my iTunes library, but the variety of broadcast playlists can be a little too random — which is why I’ve also long used Last.fm. As a taste-based recommendation engine, it is as close to human as an automated platform can currently be. However, this intelligence can actually hinder the finding of newness. Presenting me with clones of the music I already like isn’t going to improve the breadth of my listening experience.

A new app named MPme Radio wants to find a happy medium between these polar opposites, marrying the unexpectedness of radio with the predictability of an intelligent recommendation engine. Given that this app relies on the content provided by third-party broadcasters, though, is a middle-ground nirvana really possible?

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Breaking news is, perhaps, the foremost staple of connected computing, mobile or otherwise. If our interconnectedness isn’t for receiving the latest, then what is it for? Pretty much every smartphone owner has some method or other of staying up to date, whether by app, by browser, or by Twitter.

Given how much time we spend away from our desktops, however, it seems strange that news is produced in a format that is specifically designed for the large screen. At best, mobile users get a simplified design, but that doesn’t change the underlying content, which is often far too in-depth to provide an on-the-go summary of events.

The creators of Circa realized this. They realized it at least 12 months ago, in fact, and their app has been serving the folks on iOS with human-edited news, broken down into bite-sized chunks, ever since. Now, Circa’s flavour of précis-based reporting has arrived on Android – but can such simplified reporting really quench our thirst for news?

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I was recently chatting with a few of my fellow AppStorm writers about email apps. For most of us, it’s almost a non-subject; we use Gmail as our inbox provider, and as a result, we use the official app, which just happens (in my humble opinion) to be the best Play Store offering in the email genre. But there was one writer who had just moved to Android from the Cupertino-based dark side. His main address was hosted on iCloud. Which outstanding non-Gmail app should he go for? Ah, about that…

I’m hoping that in similar future scenarios, I’m going to be able to recommend SolMail. This is an app which has clearly drawn inspiration from the smooth operators of email on iOS, such as Mailbox. But can SolMail really reproduce the kind of sleek design and ease of use pioneered by the Dropbox-owned app?

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Diary writing is an art of self-documentation that is virtually as old as writing itself. It is also a dying art. A respectable population of journal-keepers there may still be, but aside from these committed wordsmiths, society at large is simply not finding the time to keep a log. That’s a shame.

It also seems like an unnecessary chore. The huge quantity of digital data we produce on a daily basis, if collated, could provide a fairly accurate picture of our by-the-minute activities. Such an idea may seem somewhat futuristic, but this is the ambition which drove development company Dexetra to create the life-logging app, Friday. But this six-man team wanted to go beyond a simplistic journal; Binil Anthony, co-founder and CMO of Dexetra, outlined the vision to me — “to find info of an externality, we have Google and a lot of other search engines. But how do we search for things in our personal lives?”

A good question. With Friday, Dexetra intended to capture much of the data generated in daily phone use and combine it with the natural language processing engine found in their first app, Iris, in order to create a voice-searchable personal database. An incredible concept, for sure, but has it worked?

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