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Affinity Designer, Sketch and Illustrator

Do you fancy trying a new OS X Vector Illustration app? An upstart called Affinity Designer is out and even though it’s a first version beta, it already looks like a good competitor to Adobe Illustrator. From when you first launch Affinity Designer and create a new document you can tell that they’re going after Adobe Creative Cloud with their trio of apps aimed replacing Illustrator, Photoshop (Affinity Photo) and InDesign (Affinity Publisher).

Therein, for me, lies the conflict. Sometimes Affinity goes so far in following Illustrator’s path that I can’t help feel its missing an opportunity to take a fresh approach like Bohemian Coding did with Sketch. The Sketch interface is native, bright and yet neutral, whereas Affinity goes for the more contrasting ‘Dark UI’ of Adobe and Apple Pro apps. The advantage with Affinity’s approach though is that there is less to relearn, and you can start ‘feeling at home’ early on. As someone who has spent a long time getting used to Sketch, I would say its well worth the learning curve.

A new document in Sketch – no messing about

Opening a new Sketch document is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t constrict you into choosing a document size, or output resolution, its just an infinite blank canvas. You can start working straight away without any confines. If you’re designing a website, the document size dialog restricts your thinking before you’ve even started.

A new document dialog in Affinity, choose before entering…

As I do a lot of icon work, one of my first tests in any vector app is whether I can keep all the icon set in one file, and output each one to SVG easily with exactly the filename I desire. Its not ideal to work on icons in isolation, when they’re together you judge balance and consistency at a glance.

Illustrator performs very poorly at this test – it removed the ability to output slices to SVG in CS5.5, leaving only the option to export artboards to SVG. Trouble is, it only allows 100 artboards, a limit that can be easily reached with iconsets like Spotify with three different sizes per icon. Therefore iconsets have to split over several documents. Exporting SVG from artboards also adds the main document name to the filename, when all I want is the artboard name. I’m currently testing a new version of Tom Byrne’s Multi Exporter script, (coming out soon) which makes this process a lot better, and allows layers to output to SVG with exactly the filename you want. If only Adobe hadn’t removed the slice to SVG functionality. Weirdos.

Affinity Designer only currently supports saving the whole document as SVG, and doesn’t have artboards – just slices. However, slices can easily be created with either the slice tool, or by exporting a particular layer, and SVG output is on their roadmap. So that’s good news! Filename is taken from the slice name so you have full control over that. Once SVG output is added, it will overtake Illustrator in this test.

Sketch is the King when it comes to export options however. Export Artboards, Slices or Layers to multiple file formats and folder locations at once. It couldn’t be more flexible. In my day to day work, the balance is tipping between Illustrator and Sketch. The drawing tools in Illustrator are more mature (although still prone to having WTF moments), but Sketch is progressing fast and unencumbered by legacy UI, like having to tick a checkbox in order to just preview an effect. Its 2014 now Adobe, I’m sure my computer can handle it.

My preference is now for working mostly in Sketch. I’ll definitely keep an eye on Affinity Designer though, and more competition for the subscription-based Adobe Creative Cloud can only be a good thing for all of us.

Update: The Iconfinder Blog has a more in depth review and comparison of features.

Iconsider

Here’s a new iPhone app to help you preview your iOS application icons called Iconsider ($2.99). The workflow is that you simply place your png files in dropbox, and Iconsider will take the file and preview on a sample homescreen. You can change the App Name, choose whether the gloss overlay is applied, and simulate a non-retina screen if its on an iPhone 4 or above. Once previewed you can then email a screenshot to your client for them to consider.

It does all of this very well, but could really do with expanding much further. I would like to test spotlight and settings icons in-situ as well, and consider an iPad version absolutely essential. Its also not the most effective way to preview how an icon looks – you would need to test how it compares with other icons, rather than in isolation. You could do this by installing other app icons, but that’s a bit time consuming.

Here’s a test I ran with the icon files for PlanGrid:

As you can see, it takes all the various icon sizes, but only really previews the App Icon.

You can of course preview your icons on top of a screenshot on any desktop graphics app, but with colour and saturation differences, you can’t beat testing on the actual device. At the moment I use xScope Mirror to test on iPhone and iPad, but an iOS app that could take all the exported PNGs and simulate them all in their various contexts would be fantastic.

In short, Iconsider has potential, but needs more thought to become a useful tool.

Things 2

I know that there are plenty of other task manager apps out there, free ones even, that have had cloud syncing for a while now. I’ve tried them all, but nothing works as well for me as Things,and now Things 2 finally has proper syncing. Not too minimal, not heavily laden with features, just the right amount of functionality to manage tasks, without spending managing the task-manager.

Well done Cultured Code, it was worth the wait!

Zippity

My friend Simon at Goo Software recently needed to open a zip file on his iPhone, view it contents and send one of the files to someone else. A simple task you would think, but upon finding that there were no decent solutions available on the App Store, he did what any self-respecting iOS developer would do – made one himself!

The result is Zippity, the easiest way to handle zip files on your iPhone!
Preview contents, send via email, open in other apps on your iPhone. For a mere 69p it also supports .tar, .tar.gz, .gz as well as .zip.

Buy Zippity on the App Store

Apps of the moment

There are a few apps that I’m particularly enjoying using at the moment, so I thought I’d share in case any of them are news to you:

Choosy

Choosy does a seemingly simple task, and does it very well. For a start, it provides a central preference pane to choose your default browser, but its main thrust is letting you choose which browser to open a link in. You can do this either manually via a chooser display (right), or automatically depending on order of preference.

My favourite feature is ‘behaviour rules’. For example, I get emails from Opera’s internal bug tracking system, and I always want to open these in Opera, no matter what my default browser is at the time. I can now do that with one simple rule set up in Choosy!

For someone like me who still uses several browsers (mainly, but not exclusively, Safari, Chrome and Opera) it doesn’t ‘arf make life easier.

Fantastical

Quite simply, the best calendar app I’ve ever used. Its always handy (sits in the menubar), doesn’t have the vulgar leather stitched interface of iCal (yes I know about Busycal) but is small, neat, and made for humans. Yes, it still has an element of skeumorphism, but in my view its done right – just enough to make it feel warm with the distracting superflous details. As well as the mix of traditional calendar and agenda views, it allows events to be added using human language, with the calendar view filtering live as you type, and adding people and locations. Its a joy to use, and I use it as my one and only desktop calendar app.

And then, two well known apps that I continue to enjoy…

Evernote

This is still my central collection source. I’ve tried all sorts of ways over the years, but the Evernote ecosystem of desktop-web-mobile is still the winner for me. Shared notebooks works brilliantly, and they are constantly evolving the UI (such as the recent subtle Notes redesign). It all goes in here – images, PDFs, notes, draft blog posts, anything I want to remember or keep for later. Its my travel diary, design scrapbook, UI library, recipe and notes book. It was invaluable in writing The Icon Handbook:

There’s still a few niggles with Evernote – for example you can now drag a thumbnail out of the app to export it, but it does so in a format that only Evernote can read. Not really export is it? Despite a few niggles like this, I remain a big fan.

Spotify

I’ve had a on-off relationship with Spotify. In general, I treat it as a way of previewing whole albums before deciding whether to buy them, creating collaborative playlists and getting access to a large music library on my iPhone without any syncing woes.

They’ve done a few wonky things recently (such as requiring Facebook to sign up, sharing everything with Facebook by default) and since joining iTunes match (a service that I’m greatly impressed with) the latter reason is less important. However I’m enjoying a great new Spotify feature: Apps. I love the last.fm and Guardian reviews apps particularly, making it an even better place to discover new music.

The handbag app that almost was

Last year, I submitted my very first app to the App Store. It was rejected 3 weeks later. This is its brief story…

Wes West from Torchbox first gave me the idea to create an iPhone app for Oooh! It was a great idea, and one that would give me a learning opportunity to develop and submit my own app. It would be fun, and free! All it needed to do was to “ooooOooooh!” when shaken.

While I created all the necessary graphics, Simon Whitaker of Goo Software handled the development side, implementing the shake-to-ooh function and guiding me through the whole process from start to finish.

So, here we go. When you launch it, you’d have seen this if you were holding the device in portrait mode:

And then once in landscape mode, you’d see this:

You shook it, and the handbag was waved along with the cry of “oooOOoooh!”

Job done. It even worked on the iPad, for a much more life-sized handbag.

The rejection was on the grounds that it didn’t do very much, and that I couldn’t argue with. Yes, there are fart/light/foghorn apps on the app store with even less functionality, but these are being cracked down on now. Apple were very helpful in coming with ways of adding more functionality to help it get accepted, but so much time had already gone into what was only ever going to be a free app. In some ways, it’s done it’s job, and I’ve learned a lot about the process of developing and submitting apps. I also met a new friend because of it – I could never have done it without Simon.

I might try and implement it as a web app, using local storage – again, as much for the learning experience of making one. For now, it’s being put away in the shed.

App, app and away!

I’ve finally submitted my first iOS app to the iTunes App Store! A joint project with Simon Whitaker of Goo Software, the title on the top of the window might hint as to what the app is about. If the app gets approved (don’t know of any reason why it won’t but you never know) there’ll be a detailed post to come…

LiveView for iPhone and iPad

main

If you’re designing anything that’ll be viewed on either the iPhone or iPad, you’re going to find LiveView a godsend. It’s been out a couple of years, but I only discovered it this week.

It comes in two parts – a Screencaster app for your Mac, and a companion app for the iPhone/iPad. As you work on the graphics, you can view it live on the device. An essential, and free tool. I shot a quick video on my iPhone to show how it works:

So far, it only seems to be lacking an option top use it in landscape mode.

Fireworks alternatives on trial: Acorn, Drawit and Opacity

Last October, I wrote about my frustrations with Fireworks CS4, and the search for decent competitors to Adobe Software. Photoshop has many alternatives, and Illustrator has a handful, but nothing else seemed to cater for the mix of vector and bitmap editing that is Fireworks.

I recently tried both Photoshop and Illustrator again for icon creation, and Illustrator in particular irritated the hell out of me with it’s pixel preview artefacts (still not fixed from CS3). Before I get a sackful of comments from diehard Photoshop fans, please believe me when I say that Photoshop is not the right tool.

group

That post did point to 3 possibilities however: Acorn, Drawit and Opacity. I didn’t include Inkscape, not because it’s bad, but I’m looking for better integration with OS X than Adobe products, and Inkscape feels like a step further away from that. Linux and Windows users will find that it feels more at home for them.

Why this post took so long

In order to trial these applications properly, you have to use them in anger. That is, on something real. However, the approach and workflow of any new tool is going to be different. Commands won’t be in the same place as you expect them to be, or even named the same. There will be different ways of achieving the same end goal, and getting used to all these takes time.

When you’re up against with deadlines, it’s never the right time to go through that process. So you end up the tool that you know, that you will enable you to deliver on time with confidence. Times that by three, and you’ll know why this has taken so long to write.

Disclaimer: No app can be perfect, and it takes a lot of time to trial them and understand their approach. It could be the these apps do have the features that I’ve claimed are missing, but there’s only so much time I can give them all. Do point out if that’s the case.

Criteria

I’ll be using this app for website designs, icons and interface elements, so some of the key things that I’m looking for are:

  1. Pixel snapping. I must have the confidence that when I draw a vector object it’s dead on, no decimal points in either the dimensions or the positioning.
  2. Vector editing. A broad term to mean being able to add strokes, fills and different types of gradients.
  3. Boolean Operations. Which is apparently the posh term for what I’m more used to calling ‘Pathfinder’, making a new shape by subtracting, adding or intersecting two vector paths.
  4. Text Controls. It must be able to set leading and kerning, but ligature support would be good too.
  5. Multiple States. States and Pages are features in Fireworks that I use lot. I love being able to store multiple versions of a design (different pages of a site design, resolutions of an icon, a series of icons etc.) in one file. A similar function would be wonderful.
  6. Export to png, svg, eps, .ico,.icns and pdf.

There are more requirements (taken for granted things like layers) and nice-to-haves, but these are the core dependencies.

For the sake of a starting point, I set a basic task of drawing a button with rounded corners (set with a value), transparent stroke, inner highlight, linear gradient with transparent colours and an outer shadow. I also chose to overlay the word ‘Waffle’ to test kerning and ligatures. Like this:

test artwork

Let’s see how they all fared (click the larger screenshots to see the full image)…

Acorn

Acorn screenshot

acornI found Acorn’s layout beautiful, intuitive and well thought out. In fact, it was my favourite (with DrawIt a close second). One of the turn-offs of Adobe software are some of the non-native UI decisions, but Acorn embraces modern Mac UI design with vigour. These things matter!

Acorn allows the basic vector drawing abilities that you would expect, such as editing and positioning elements (particularly vector shapes) numerically with x,y,w&h values. It also has that wonderful feature of taking screenshots with each window on a separate layer.

However it’s intention is primarily a bitmap editor, and was missing functions like:

  • Gradient fills
  • Guides (although these will be in Acorn 2.3!)
  • Ability to apply a stroke to the outside or inside of a shape, as well as centred
  • Boolean operations
  • and so on…

So this was a far as I could get without converting the shape to a bitmap:

test graphic in acorn

That’s a score in items 1,2 (partially) and 4 (partially). I could export to .png, but that was it. I was able to alter kerning overall and manually between pairs of letters, but I couldn’t find support for ligatures.

You may wonder why I include Acorn in the alternatives if it doesn’t fulfil enough of the criteria? Well, it’s a bloody good image editor, and it’s lack of vector capabilities may not be an issue for everyone. It also has the bitmap editing features that the other choices here lack.

It’s clear that Acorn’s priorities are elsewhere, but the basis for a fantastic competitor is there. Whether it makes commercial sense for Gus to take it that direction only he can tell, but I would love to see Acorn’s vector capabilities expanded. If you do too, please write to Flying Meat Software, as I’m sure if there was enough demand and constructive suggestions, he would consider it.

Drawit

screenshot of drawit

drawitDrawIt’s interface is a single-window affair, with only the OS X colour and text palettes being separate. On the left is layers and properties, and on the right side are the ‘special attributes’ where you add fills, strokes, shadows and so on.

Drawit seems more aimed at the Fireworks market: vector drawing with bitmap effects. It’s a big step up from Acorn in terms of drawing capabilities, and (initially) it felt like using Keynote after years of Powerpoint. Remember that feeling?

We’re getting close with Drawit. It boasts:

  • Excellent Mac integration and UI design
  • Pixel snapping
  • Multiple strokes!
  • Gradient strokes!
  • All manner of editable effects!
  • Exposé layers!
  • Easy Locking and unlocking layers.

Shapes are automatically drawn with certain effects, but once you’ve removed what you normally wouldn’t need, you can right click on it and ‘set effects as default’.

What it lacks:

  • A tools palette. I don’t want to go through dropdown menus in order just to add a vector shape to the canvas
  • Export to .eps option. Granted it allows bitmap effects which wouldn’t export, but I would love to be able to get vector artwork out in a format that other vector apps understand. (Apparently vector export is on the way though!)
  • No multiple page function
  • No alt-drag to create a duplicate shape
  • No alt-key modifier to resize objects from the centre outwards
  • No bitmap editing tools
  • No manual guides (but it does have smart guides!)

This is what I could achieve with the test artwork:

test.drawit

So that’s a score in items 1,2,3 (partially) and 4. Unfortunately, I came across some buggy rendering behaviour, which meant that not everything could be done with the same vector shape/layer (update as of v3.10.3 these have now been fixed). I think if I’d have persevered, I could’ve added the outer shadow. In particular, there is a nasty bug with boolean operations and shapes with rounded corners, which creates very wacky results. There’s also a nasty undo bug, and I often find I can’t undo any steps at all. All quirks that I’m sure can be fixed if I take the time to file a bug report though.

Overall, DrawIt is on the right lines. I do have concerns that their other app Sketch (a purely vector drawing app) is going to divide up the developers attention too much. I would’ve liked to see DrawIt developed in this way, rather than branching off those features into a separate app. Especially as Sketch has the multiple page facility, and export to eps and svg that was part of my criteria. Pieter Omvlee, the developer of DrawIt replied to these fears on Twitter

…as to your fear about Sketch vs DrawIt; they do share a lot of code and I def plan to bring features back to DrawIt.

Opacity

opacity screenshot

opacityThe main interface of Opacity is split into the canvas window (left, with layers on the side) and the inspector on the right. It’s focus is creating resolution-independent graphics, and if you’re designing for software (icons, interface graphics in general) you’ll find a lot to love here.

Compared to Acorn and DrawIt, Opacity doesn’t score quite as well in the beautiful Mac UI design stakes. It’s not ugly by any means, but there is a mixture of styles and a little less coherent interface. For example, text can’t be edited directly on the canvas, only via an inspector, which seems very odd. Fine for small amounts of text, but this would be a royal pain in the arse for site designs.

Let’s get my other complaints out of the way first:

  • No bitmap editing tools, although can draw with pixels, something Shaun Inman might like. I would at least like to be able to select areas of bitmaps and copy or transform them. (Update turns out you CAN do basic bitmap editing, but images have to be rasterized first)
  • Can’t select an object in another layer without selecting the layer first (there’s no cmd-select option as there is in Photoshop).
  • No alt-key modifier to resize objects from the centre outwards.

However, these are moot points in what is otherwise an incredibly powerful app. In fact, there is so much you can do in Opacity that I know I’ve not been able to explore it all. Here are some of my favourite features:

  • Pixel snapping
  • Multiple strokes!
  • Gradient strokes!
  • All manner of editable effects!
  • Multiple resolutions in one file
  • Multiple frames, with option to export to individual files, as well as share layers across frames.
  • Excellent export options: png, jpg, jpg2000, tiff, gif, ico, icns, svg, pdf, bmp, even .icontainer. (no .eps though).

And in particular:

Factories

Factories Inspector

This is one of Opacity’s genius features! Factories are all about setting up how you export your files, in as many different ways as you need. Let’s say for example you need a png. ico and .icns versions of your icon artwork. Add a new factory for each, choosing the destination folder and compression. For added ease, check the ‘Build Factories on Save’ option, and Opacity will export the files whenever you save. No fiddling with save dialogs where the app doesn’t remember the place you last exported, just apple-s. Only until you use this do you realise how much time you used to waste exporting files.

It even taps into my favourites in Transmit to allow me to save to a server!

Variables

There are all sorts of variables that you can use in your artwork, but one that I would use a lot is Resolution. With this, I can create all the different sizes for an icon, and alter the artwork based on it’s resolution, such as removing detail at small sizes.

Values

Enter calculations to let opacity work it out for you

The value fields in Opacity respond to sums – that is you can type 25*2, 100-50 or 20+30 to get the same result. Handy, as sometimes positioning and sizing requires some maths.

Preview

Opacity makes it very easy to try your artwork with many different backgrounds. Apart from being able to choose checkerboard, colour or an image, it comes with many built in backgrounds, such as the Leopard Aurora desktop or Windows XP’s Bliss.

Finally, let’s see how it fared on the little test:

test in opacity

All 6! What’s more, I took substantially less time to create than in the other two.

Conclusion

There still isn’t one app that will replace Fireworks completely, but elements of these 3 are on the right tracks, and a combination works right now. My personal favourite here is Opacity, as it has almost all the feature set I need and more that Fireworks doesn’t provide. I’ve used it in a production environment too – all new graphics for Opera 10.50 have been made in Opacity.

It just needs a bit of UI love in the way that Acorn and DrawIt have, and a better system for dealing with text. I’ll still keep an eye on the other two, but I’ll be using Opacity alongside Fireworks for now. All three are being developed by people who care and are responsive over email.

So that’s my thoughts, it’s now up to you to try them yourself!

A big-assed post about Fireworks

This is a post about Fireworks. Not about Photoshop, Illustrator and which is ‘best’. This is about a frustrated love hate relationship.

I love Fireworks.

It’s been my tool of choice for a rather long time. In the previous year of working for Opera, I’ve used it more than any other app. Whether I’ve been working on interactive wireframes, UI mockups, icons or final production artwork, Fireworks is the one that I go to.

When people ask why I don’t use Illustrator or Photoshop I sometimes find it hard to articulate precisely why. Illustrator is undoubtedly best for print/high-res illustrations and logos, while Photoshop is the first choice for manipulating photos, especially for print. Each have some tools from the other, but neither is intended for creating screen graphics with vector and bitmap tools in the way that Fireworks is.

It loves pixels. Photoshop and Illustrator only ‘do’ pixels when they’re coerced, and by golly do they take persuasion sometimes. For example, in Illustrator, why does a 1 pixel stroke on a pixel perfect box, placed on pixel perfect co-ordinates have sub-pixels on the top edge? Why do I have to make the stroke 0.9px instead of 1px just to get a crisp 1px edge?

Screenshot of the 1px border bug in Illustrator

This is surely the most basic of things to get right? Photoshop can do vectors and some of what Fireworks can – it just makes it harder to do it.

What’s so great about Fireworks…

Pixel-snapping vector tools aside, it’s most useful feature (that still isn’t present in anything else I’ve tried) is multiple Pages and States. Why have 45 separate files for a set of icons, when I can have one file that will export to 45 individual files? Let’s say all these icons have the same background, like a typical OS X toolbar button, and you notice a glitch. To update all those files would be tedious, but because it’s in Fireworks on a shared layer (or Master Page) one update is all that is needed. Master Pages in particular come in handy with site designs, as each page can be a different size and canvas colour.

Here’s a sample working file of Opera Unite icons:

Fireworks

It contains five different pages (one for each pixel resolution) and 10 icons per page, each on a different ‘state’. 50 icons, one file, one export. I’ve attempted replicating this functionality with layers, layer comps and multiple artboards, but they don’t come close.

Every time I’ve worked on wireframes and mockups, I’ve felt blessed that I’ve got symbols. Anyone that’s used Flash will know what a symbol library is, but for those that haven’t, think of them like this: Reusable content. Take the example of a form button in a site design. I can create a button symbol, specify how that graphic can be resized (with 9 slice guides), and place it anywhere in my document. Again, updating and editing is a do-once, update every instance affair.

It’s not all roses though.

I also hate Fireworks.

With a growing passion. With each update we get more tools and features that I care nothing for – Adobe Air, Bridge and Flex integration and CSS export. Worst of all it’s become remarkably unstable, particularly under Snow Leopard. It crashes, even when you don’t look at it funny.

I use it because it’s the best there is, but there are a lot of holes that need filling for me:

  • Auto-activating fonts. Whether this is down to Adobe or the developers of Font Managers I’m not sure. To get a newly activated font to show up, you need to restart Fireworks
  • Export to Illustrator. Yes, this option exists, but it ignores gradients, transparency effects, and just about everything but the paths themselves. When I know that the artwork will be needed beyond screen use, I work in Illustrator from the outset, but there isn’t always that fore-warning.
  • Placing items outside the canvas. A pasteboard area to place surplus artwork would make life a lot easier, and stop the ‘resizing the canvas cuts overlapping artwork’ pain.
  • It’s taken to CS4 to get palettes that scroll with a scrollwheel, and even now, they don’t ALL do it
  • In CS4, when using the ‘application frame’ you need to click inside the active document before commands like zoom work, otherwise it does nothing.

I really could go on, but there are also more general problems with the Adobe Creative suite:

  • Expensive – not two ways about it, it costs a few bob, and it often feels like better performance/bug fixes have to be paid for. I upgraded to CS3, solely to have a suite that worked properly on an Intel Mac. It now feels like those CS2 days are here again with Snow Leopard.
  • Bloated in feel: both with sluggish performance and barrel loads of features you never use. This can of course be entirely psychological.
  • Keyboard shortcuts deviate from the OS X standard, and from each other. Command-H should always Hide the application, Command-1 should always show the the document at 100%.
  • Installation: To reinstall CS4 recently took an hour, during which it also wants to take a big smelly dump in your Applications folder: Adobe Media Player, Adobe Drive, Adobe Bridge, Version Cue… STOP! Also – why make me close all my browsers?
  • Licensing/activation process. I know this is an anti-piracy measure, but it actually makes a cracked version more appealing.
  • Updating: Do I need to say anything here? It’s a dark land far, far away from the ease of Sparkle, where even the updater needs to update itself.
  • Then there are those glitches with artefacts which have been creeping into Fireworks of late too. Blobs of pixels that aren’t really there, but show up because the screen hasn’t been redrawn correctly. Cumulative wasted hours trying to get rid of artwork that is a phantom.

Compare these gripes with an app like Opacity. It downloads quickly, you open it and it asks you if you want to place it inside the Applications folder – done! That’s installation. As for updating, it self-updates and lets you know what’s been changed. The least amount of friction, and you’re left with the feeling of being in control of what you’ve installed.

Now, at this point, I need to confess that I’m the worlds worst beta tester. I’ve been on Fireworks beta programmes before, but haven’t had much time to give feedback or bug reports. So it’s a bit rich of me to be whining on my blog when this is all feedback that should’ve been submitted.

The problem is, after submitting the 20th crash report of the day, I’ve lost faith that anyone ever sees them or acts upon them. Overall, it feels like Fireworks is at the point of no return – no hope of it ever being fixed or improved, only that it will get more bloated, buggy, non-native and expensive. A stable version will no doubt come, but we will have to pay for it in the form of CS5. Maybe it’s not the Fireworks team that’s the problem here, maybe it’s higher up at Adobe? Maybe it’s just my setup? I can’t tell.

The bottom line is: Fireworks was my favourite, cherished tool, and it’s unreliability and issues mean my daily workflow is badly disrupted.

So, my thoughts turn to competitors. I’m not the only one, others are fed up with Fireworks and are looking for something to use instead. John Gruber, using the analogy of Filemaker’s Bento app, hits the nail on the head:

Adobe shouldn’t scrap its existing software any more than FileMaker Inc. should scrap FileMaker. But where’s Adobe’s “Bento” for bitmap and vector image editing for the Mac? The Bentos in this space are coming from indie developers with apps like Acorn, Pixelmator, Lineform, and Opacity.”

For such a long time, there haven’t been any alternatives. Various apps have been born that compete with other Adobe Suite apps, like Lineform and VectorDesigner with Illustrator, and Pixelmator and Acorn with Photoshop. Nothing for Fireworks, and yet the need for screen graphics is surely growing daily? Not only with websites, but desktop software and mobile apps.

In the meantime, Twitter clients have become ten a penny and Omnigraffle has matured to become a truly great tool for multi-page wireframes.

Recently however, three potential alternative apps have surfaced: Drawit, Acorn 2 and Opacity. I’m going to be putting these apps through their paces, to see if they can be potential alternatives. That’s for another time though, as this post has gone on long enough!

However, initial trials are showing Opacity as the most thoroughly feature-filled contender, but with Acorn sporting undoubtedly the most thoughtful interface. Acorn also has the advantage in that it’s developer, Gus Mueller, is actively seeking feedback on how it can be more of a Fireworks competitor. Drawit also has a pleasing UI, but with some issues on rendering.

I’ll report back on these when I can!

Yojimbo 2 upgrade

Yojimbo 2 has suddenly arrived!, but I’ve immediately hit a snag. When you first open it, Yojimbo 1 users are met with this message:

Yojimbo

So if you try out version 2, you screw up your installation of 1. It’s good manners that it warns you, but a better solution would be to offer a backup and restore facility. The message put me off upgrading, but I found the database (home>Library>Application Support>Yojimbo) and have backed it up. Hopefully, if I decide not to upgrade, I can just restore this folder to revert to version 1.

Great to see a new improved icon though!

Update: Making a backup of the database works, although I found that wasn’t enough. After restoring the Yojimbo folder in Application Support, and clicking on Yojimbo 1 I got a warning that it was already running another instance. I checked in Activity Monitor, and there wasn’t. The fix was to run Yojimbo 2 again, and choose ‘quit’ rather than ‘upgrade’ – then I was able to run version 1 again.

Boxee and Plex

My journey to find the ideal Media Centre has brought me via Plex and Boxee. Both are media center applications based on the popular open source XBox Media Center (XBMC), with Boxee focussing on the social network slant, and Plex solely on OS X integration.

Plex has a very slick interface, and everytime I mention Boxee, there is the inevitable “Why not Plex?’ cry from other Mac users. At the moment, the answer is that Plex doesn’t yet offer me much over just using Front Row. The slick interface has more character than Front Row though, particularly in it’s use of online databases to provide metadata and large format photographs:

It doesn’t always get the show/movie right however. The Secret Show recordings were believed to be ‘Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’, and this couldn’t be manually removed.

The main appeal of Plex is that it’s built for OS X only, so you’re getting the best integration – no pandering to cross platform needs. In particular iTunes library scanning works really well, and plays iTunes store DRM’s material, an area where Boxee failed (see below).

What I miss from Plex are services like BBC iPlayer and EyeTV integration, which I believe are planned. That’s where Boxee comes in.

Boxee, on the face of it, doesn’t have quite as much UI sexiness as Plex, but I think it’s more thoughtfully laid out. For example, when you log in, the home screen shows you not only what you and your friends have been watching/listening to, but what you’ve recently added. Here is your new content – go straight to it.

The social network side is intriguing, but the integration of internet services (too numerous to mention) is it’s forté. In particular, the one that interests me the most, is that the latest release supports BBC iPlayer, and does it rather well, using the Beeb’s Big Screen Interface :

There are only two downsides I’ve experienced so far: Firstly, it doesn’t show all of my Music (around 800 non-DRM albums are just missing), despite leaving it overnight to process the collection. After digging around on forums, this seemed to be caused by scraping Last.fm for information, and that a different source was intended for future releases. That doesn’t explain why random songs are missing from albums though. Until then, I have to browse the folder structure to find what I want to play.

The biggie is stability. In the middle of watching a movie with the family it crashed. I installed the EyeTV plugin from XBMC and it crashed. I asked it to look for a SMB share and it crashed. When it crashes on the Mac Mini the only solution is turn it off and restart it. It feels churlish mentioning this when Boxee is in Alpha, and if you follow Team Boxee on their blog and twitter, you’ll know it’s progressing at a good pace. It just means it’s not that usable for me at the moment.

While playing with Boxee, I found a few useful tricks and add-ons, such as:

  • You can also get a Front Row appliance to put a Boxee entry into the Front Row Menu, making it easy to launch with the Apple Remote
  • If you have problems (like I did) getting TV Shows to show up in the TV Show menu, editing the filename does the trick, but obviously that’s a bit tedious.
  • To stream from your Mac, you can set up an SMB share, which will then show up as a media source in Boxee:
  • The snappily title XBMCEyeTVParser will allow you to watch EyeTV recordings in Boxee. Oddly, it places it in Videos > Internet, rather than TV Shows. As mentioned above, it did cause crashes for me, but your mileage may vary.

Ultimately, Boxee is geared up for the US market – Hulu, ABC, Netflix and such, some of which can be accessed in the UK via VPN trickery. You would then have to disable that in order to watch BBC iPlayer, which I’m more likely to watch. Not a big deal on your laptop, but when you’re trying to control a Mac Mini with a little remote, it’s going to require clever scripts and patience.

Despite stability and iTunes library niggles, I prefer Boxee over Plex. In fact, Boxee instills feelings of love and devotion in me for it’s online services, recommendations and layout. However, I’ve come to realise that the problem for me isn’t ‘Boxee or Plex’, it’s that controlling a Mac Mini remotely can be a pain in the arse. I haven’t tried Boxee on AppleTV though, which may well be the answer, but the hacky nature of it put me off.

Neither Boxee or Plex have ended up being my ideal solution, which is in fact a Playstation 3 with PlayTV. That’s for another post!

Dropbox & Leap sitting in a tree

I’ve waffled a lot this year about Evernote, Littlesnapper and their ilk, but I now feel I’ve found the best scrapbooking solution for me.

In the comments to my Littlesnapper post, Jo mentioned Leap.app, the file browser alternative to the Finder, as a way improving the approach of using the Finder to browse scrapbook images:

Your comment about tagging in Finder reminded me of a program I stumbled across, ages ago, that is a pretty cool alternative/replacement to Finder: Leap. It provides preview thumbnails of just about everything (you can pick the size and zoom in at will), tagging (I believe it covers tag completion, as well; it at least auto-tags based on folders you’ve stored things in); all sorts of neat features, and more ways to search and index your files than you can shake a stick at. If you ever want to ditch Finder for something more interesting that might be more helpful in your collecting endeavors than Finder was, I’d highly suggest taking a peek at Leap.

I’d tried Leap a while back when it first came out and didn’t play with it for long, but now having sat down and got used to it’s way of working (These videos help), I’m converted!

DropBox + Leap.app = Heaven

I’ve been a DropBox evangelist since day one, and John and I have pimped it a lot on the podcast. However, my vision on how I could use it was somewhat narrow, until I read a post about Killer Scrapbooking by Colly. I’d never realised that DropBox had an online gallery interface, or that it had an easily browsable iPhone interface.

Above: The normal and iPhone optimised DropBox website

So now, inside my DropBox’s Photo folder, I have a ‘Design Scrapbook’ folder. All I need is an alias to the scrapbook folder on my desktop and I can just drag anything I want to keep to it. There isn’t an interface that pops up when I do this – it all stays in the background until I want to look at it.

This solves the big problems I had with other solutions: Files are easily accessible, and shareable, from anywhere, in their original state. They’re not renamed like in Evernote, or hidden away from view in a database file. The new Evernote Premium version allows you add files to a note without changing their name, but the problem is right there: you have to add them to a note! You still can’t just keep your files on they’re own in their original state.

What’s more I can not only store and browse images, but also PDFs (I have quite a few typeface samples as PDFs), Movies, Presentations, anything. These don’t show up in DropBox’s web gallery interface of course, but they’re still synced.

Tagging any file, and viewing by tag, is quick and easy, and it has the resizable thumbnail interface that I like so much in LittleSnapper and iPhoto.

Above: Using the Loupe tool to quickly enlarge portions of images – Leap also supports QuickLook.

This does mean that I still use separate apps: Skitch for screenshots and Paparazzi/Web Archives to capture complete web pages, but that’s fine. Skitch in particular blends in seamlessly with this system – for all intents and purposes, it could be a feature of the same app.

Of course, I’m using Leap for more than just browsing my scrapbook – now that I’m in the mindset I prefer using that to find files. Unlike my other software reviews this year, there are no downsides to Leap – it’s all full of WIN. I haven’t felt so excited about apps since, well, since Coda.

LittleSnapper

I’ve talked a lot about OS X apps recently, and I’m slightly nervous of doing it again so soon. Let me make it clear though, that I only blog about those that interest me, and for no other reason!

I’ve mentioned before about creative spongery, and how I collect images, screenshots and type samples from the internets and shove them into iPhoto. I loved the idea of being able to use one app to do multiple jobs. After 3 years of doing this, I became bothered by having my photographs and family snaps in particular, mixed up with ‘work stuff’. iPhoto is an excellent app for storing though, so I decided to create a new iPhoto library and switch between the two. If you’ve not come across this trick before, hold down the alt key while launching iPhoto – it gives you the option to create a new library and choose a different one!

This worked for a while. but became a pain to remember to switch, especially when importing images off a camera. I clearly needed to start using a dedicated app for all this stuff. So, over the course of about 6 weeks some of the apps I tried and rejected were:

Yojimbo – No thumbnail previews of images at all, so no way to quickly scan through the collection. Does have tag support though, so the catalogue could be categorised easily

Evernote – This does have thumbnails, and what’s more, they’re resizable like iPhoto. However, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, it embeds the images into a note. This makes the thumbnails less useful, and harder to export. I also prefer a dark background to view my thumbnails against – just a personal thing!

Together – works really well. It keeps images in a clearly marked folder in the Finder (rather than hidden inside a database), and there are multiple ways to drop images in. It loses points on the thumbnail viewing though – there are 3 set sizes to view at, and they can only be displayed as a list, rather than a grid of thumbnails. Does do tagging though.

Finder – This is almost ideal, but as there is no tagging solution, images that you want to be in more than one category have to be copied.

This is where the whippersnapper LittleSnapper comes in, and just in time! It takes the elements of iPhoto that work well – the thumbnail browsing style, keywords (tagging in LS), and adds features that make it more suitable for design collections. An in-built browser with DOM-snapping, remembering URLs and providing a variety of tools to capture information.

Suffice to say, I love it. I didn’t love it until quite late on in the development process, when it became possible to drag an image to the dock icon to import it. This is how I do most of collecting, rather than full-page screenshots with Paparazzi. Once that feature was added, LS suddenly started becoming useful to me.

I won’t repeat the full feature list here, this is a blog post, not a press release, and there are too many to cover. It has ambitions to replace Paparazzi and Skitch, and while it does the former, it doesn’t quite do the latter. Namely you can’t resize images.

It also isn’t the cheapest app you can buy – so is it better than just using iPhoto? It certainly is, but iPhoto still does one thing better: thumbnails. Quickly scroll down thumbnails in iPhoto, and there is no lag, the thumbnails are there. Do the same in LittleSnapper, and you’ll reach a point where it takes a second to draw the thumbnail. Not a long time, but it means you can’t quickly browse – you have to scroll, wait, scroll, wait, etc. One final whinge – no tag completion, so you need to make sure that you type it the same each time.

With the communication I’ve had with the lovely Nik at RealMac, I’m confident that all these outstanding features are planned, and that’s enough for it to become my ‘trusted system’. I’m excited to have finally found a decent solution!

Evernote wishes

evernote logoThis post started off as a grumbly tweet, grew into a feedback email, and now it’s final state as a blog post. I’ll still email this feedback to the Evernote chappies as well, but I didn’t hear back after the last email (gentle nudge).

I’m still holding on to Evernote with the tips of my fingers, but there are areas where it still niggles at me:

  • I can’t export files in the way I would like. If I use the ‘Export’ command I get an Evernote style XML file, rather than, for example, the 3 PDFs I selected. Why XML? Just give me the PDFs! You can’t drag and drop items from the list into the Finder, but I can choose ‘email’ to get multiple items out in one go. Doing this for images frames them in it’s own branded Evernote border. Just give me the images! (does this frame go if you have a premium account?). The way around this is to drag and drop images from their notes individually, but that’s a tedious solution.
  • I really wish it wouldn’t rename my files. If I put in a PDF file helpfully named “VAT Return Jan-Mar 08” I’d like it to still be called that when I export it, rather than the unhelpful “bb2cd873d62b7e9616a056a1aac12698.pdf”. It’s my stuff, give it to me in it’s original state.
  • By default, an image is embedded into a note, which introduces whitespace into the thumbnail: Basically, portrait images fare better than landscape. I would like images to just be images – not embedded or renamed.
  • In the iPhone app, you can mark items as favourites to store them on the phone for when you have no connection (yay!) but if that is a PDF, you have to click twice to see it. Click once in the list (which shows you it’s a PDF), after which you get a screen with another PDF icon. Click that, and finally your PDF starts loading. Compare that with a PDF in Air Sharing, and you can click straight from the list to view the PDF in one. What’s the point of the middle screen? It provides no further information and just delays the process.evernote
  • New notes created on the iPhone automatically go into ‘Pending’ where it can’t be read until it’s uploaded. This means when I’m abroad and have no data signal, creating notes is waste of time, as they can’t be read until I get (or pay extra for) a connection.

The effect of the first 3 issues is that I’m left feeling that my stuff isn’t mine anymore. Once in Evernote, I can do a lot with it, but once in, it becomes Evernote’s, not mine. I’m not liking that loss of control and ownership. Compare this to a desktop competitor like Together.app, which not only lets you import and export the unaltered file in a number of ways, the files themselves are in easily accessible, visible folders. Nothing is hidden, renamed or rebranded.

Why do I stick with it? Because aside from these issues, I like where Evernote is going so far. I like that development is regular and ongoing and that they’re tackling the issue of accessing notes anywhere. I’m also sticking with it in the hope the issues I’ve noted above are simply features that haven’t been implemented yet…

My 2007 in Blogs, Music, Events and Apps!

As has been my wont since the early 90’s, I like to write up the things that have tickled my fancy for the past year…

Blogs

This is should actually be in the singular, as there has been one particular blog that has lit my fire like no others.

Ace Jet 170 seems to have the ability to find objects that trigger the same emotional reactions, like these Routemaster and Underground Signs. A new AceJet post is often followed by a trawl on ebay…

AceJet 170

Music

As usual, not everything in this list was released in 2007, but I couldn’t leave out Midlake’s Trials of Van Occupanther – 2006 be damned! Along with Midlake, the other big discovery for me was Band of Horses, and in particular ‘Cease to Begin’.

So limiting myself to only one song from each of my favourite albums, here is the top 20, in playlist style order:

Song Artist Album
Is There a Ghost Band of Horses Cease to Begin
Blackout Amusement Parks on Fire Out of the Angeles
Time Bomb Goldspot Tally of The Yes Men
Melody Day Caribou Andorra
It Covers the Hillsides Midlake The Trials of Van Occupanther
Intervention Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Isn’t Life Strange The Clientele God Save the Clientele
The Pills Won’t Help You Now The Chemical Brothers (feat. Midlake) We are the night
23 Blonde Redhead 23
Rest My Chemistry Interpol Our Love to Admire
Girl Sailor The Shins
Black Magic Jarvis Cocker Jarvis
You Can Make Him Like You The Hold Steady Girls and Boys in America
The Strangest Secret in the World London Elektricity Power Ballads
Mistaken for Strangers The National Boxer
Mutiny I Promise You The New Pornographers Challengers
Clever girls like clever boys… Pelle Carlberg In a Nutshell
Up Against a Wall Peter Bjorn and John Writer’s Block
Jigsaw falling into place Radiohead In Rainbows
Don’t bother they’re here Stars of the Lid and their Refinement of the Decline

There are few that didn’t quite make the final list, such as Of Montreal and Hammock.

Apps that have changed the way I work

Two apps have changed the way I work in 2007 like no others.

Coda

Coda IconSince I first raved about Coda, I’ve met people who have either hated it, or see it as manna from heaven. As I suspected, it doesn’t really suit the hardcore TextMate users, but for me Coda has caused some big shifts in the way I work, and everything I do bar graphics is made in Coda these days.

The biggest change for me is that web development tools in browsers have become less of a necessity. The browser is regaining its position of being ‘pleasure’ while Coda is for everything that’s ‘work’ – like the distinction between home and office. I don’t even use Firefox & Firebug anymore, the revised Web Inspector in Leopard has been incorporated in Coda and that does everything I need and more.

My design process has also been changed by Coda. I’m working on visuals less and less in Fireworks and Illustrator, and starting on the HTML/CSS much much earlier. There are so many things that are hard to convey in a static mockup, and writing the CSS and HTML in Coda is so fast, there seems little point making one. I feel that I can iterate quickly and try out ideas. I still sketch and plan on paper, but a middle man has been cut out.

There’s more to love. The ‘Sites’ view has become more like a project folder or workspace. The saved tabs in a site can include not only the site files, but the remote and local previews, the Textpattern admin panels, phpMyAdmin and the project on Basecamp. I can’t do that in Textmate. The split views in Coda are another favourite feature. Apps like CSS Edit have useful tools, like the ability to override site styles, but the multiple windows for editing and previewing drive me mad.

I could go on, but in short, if I ever see someone from Panic, they’re in danger of getting a big kiss.

Billings

Billings IconI mentioned Billings fairly recently, but beyond being a very well thought out time tracking and invoicing application, it’s meant that I have for the first time been aware of just how long I spend doing various different tasks, and how much I spend in terms of expenses and meetings. Having a timer in the menubar wins over a dashboard widget or floating window anyday.

Its also been a great motivator, making me more aware of time I haven’t spent working, without being annoying about it. If I had one request of Marketcircle though, it would be a quicker way of seeing which invoices are unpaid (such as an link in the sidebar), something I need to refer to a lot!

Events

  • Moving into the Rissington offices with John, Jon and Simon, and recording The Rissington Podcast. Its the design studio I always wanted.
  • The iPhone. Crappy camera aside, its the convergent device of my dreams. I can’t wait to see what happens when proper 3rd party apps are written for it. In particular I’d like a cut down version of Coda and a way of playing music wirelessly through airtunes.
  • 2007 has been a good year for visitors – Luke Dorny, Scott Boms, Derek Featherstone and Ms Jen (thrice!) popping by to see family Hicks.
  • Oxford Geek Nights are really something special
  • First year of partnership with Leigh! Many people ask me how well we’re working together, but not only does she run her own projects, she’s also busy making stuff.
  • The National, Imogen Heap and The Hold Steady were gig highlights.

Thanks for letting me get that out of my system – I’m done till next year!

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The Hickensian is the journal of Jon Hicks, one half of the creative partnership Hicksdesign. Take a look at the work we do.

Upcoming Talks

I sometimes pop up at conferences and waffle about design, icon creation in particular. Here's where I'll be next:

Web Expo Guildford- "Icon Design Process" - 26th September 2014

Beyond Tellerrand Berlin – 3rd-5th November 2014

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