It is a Nightmare of a Train Wreck

This week on TJ’s show (MovieByte): Clark, Fizz, TJ and I discuss our thoughts of Joon-ho Bong’s dark sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer. Chris Evans stars in this absurd-yet-well-crafted film about the human race on the edge of extinction. The last survivors on the frozen planet earth (during a second Ice Age) ride a bullet train that laps the planet once a year. The lower class revolts against the upper class once they have had enough of the demoralizing living conditions in the back of the train.…

It’s not very often that I feel I would have been better off if I’d not seen the film in review whatsoever. It’s even more rare to find a film I hated that Clark Douglas loved. Fizz and TJ were in the middle on this film. Our diverging opinions made for an unusual discussion, to say the least. 

Overcast App is a Win for Podcasts

Apps dubbed “podcast players” and “podcatchers” are more popular among the developer community these days. I think that podcasts are a great way to digest content, and like many designers and app developers, I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts on my iPhone because it feels right. I get many hours of listening enjoyment from podcast personalities.

Another reason we see so many podcast apps coming out from third party developers is that Apple did such a uniquely horrible job with their own. The Podcasts.app by Apple stinks. Even now, it feels like its an app in its infancy—just nearing the end of its version 1.0 cycle (maybe on the cusp of turning 2.0). The fact is that Apple has been iterating improvements to their podcast app for longer than that, and the app is still a failure to podcast listeners. It’s so simple and bland that it takes some of the joy away from using the iPhone or iPad for something as extraordinary as listening to podcasts.

The best podcast apps to date

Third party podcast apps, on the other hand, have been a real treat. Some are mainstream (or as close to mainstream as a podcatcher has ever been) like Instacast. This app plays podcasts with good form: helps you discover them, subscribe to them, organize them by playlists… and runs on the Mac, iPad, and the iPhone (Mac and iOS versions respectively). For these reasons, Instacast rose to the top of the podcatcher charts early on.

Pocket Casts became popular with iOS 7. It felt right on the redesign of iOS. In fact, in some ways, Pocket Casts was ahead of the curve: enhancing the iPhone experience before most other app developers knew what to do with iOS 7. Pocket Casts sports a great design and some “power user” features that have been refined over the years. I think it is fair to say that Pocket Casts is an example of developers refining the best qualities in podcast players to their peak performance. Perhaps the only flaw I can see in Pocket Casts is that it is based on what podcast listeners wanted in the past. The app hasn’t pushed podcasts forward with new features in recent times.

Castro is another honorable podcast app. It is sleek, with an emphasis on shaking up the design of podcatchers in general (you can’t mistake Castro for another). It’s trying to be a powerful too, but not so powerful that it can’t have fun in its design. For this reason, though Castro is fun to use and its got enough features to satisfy many users—but not enough features to satisfy power users—Castro feels like the sports car among podcast apps. It’s the cool kid. It’s what you show off if you have pocket change to spend on another podcast app.

Other podcast apps worth a mention are DowncastPodWrangler, and RSSradio. They get the job done, but they feel like they belong on my dad’s iPhone. They’re apps that think differently from how I think through listens to podcasts. RSSradio was the podcatcher I turned to first when I gave up hope on Apple’s own. It, along with the others, will make many happy listeners, but I feel like these don’t warrant in-depth review because they feel as though they are not competing for “Top of the Podcast Apps” slot.

Overcast was recently released

We needed fresh meat in the podcast app category to keep the ball moving forward for developers and listeners. Overcast (App Store) (website) feels like the new kid on the block with some outstanding talents. Overcast is producing a good show of what podcatchers can do when they aim higher for greatness in feature sets. Released to the public via the App Store on July 16, it has made a splash among the faithful podcast listeners and developers that are eager to see where the medium will be taken next.

If you are still reading this, then you probably know what I’m talking about. Marco Arment is no stranger to us. He has built some very influential things for the app community at large. He is a hero to many developers.

These reasons alone don’t make Overcast worth our time though. I want to be honest with my assessment and call it how I see it. How well does Overcast perform for a long-time podcast listener, a podcast producer, and an app enthusiast, such as myself?

Podcasts are just about to take off the runway

If you think what I’m telling you here is all empty nerdery, then pay closer attention. Apps are taking over the web and technology. When older generations are gone, there will be little reason to keep old-timy radio alive. The younger crowd wants something to listen to, and they are largely attracted to podcasts because they offer audio on-demand. They meet the niches and interests of younger listeners better. And more people can afford to produce a podcast than could ever produce a radio program.…

More people are introduced to podcasts every day. Though the medium is large, it’s still growing. We don’t know how fast its growing, but podcasts are still catching on with the world’s population. Apple is going to add their podcatcher to the default app set of iOS 8, because its time for podcasts to be called up from the minors into the majors for apps.

So podcast apps and the value they give to listeners are just getting started.

Overcast is a great podcast player

Overcast is an app that features new and compelling reasons to make podcasts a part of your weekly media digest. If you’re a veteran of podcasts or new to the medium, you should find something in Overcast you like.

Overcast has two very compelling features. They are effects the app can perform on the audio playback so you can make better use of audio podcasts.

The first is called Smart Speed. This on/off option in the Overcast player shortens silences in the podcasts you listen to. This may sound trivial, but over the long-run of podcasts you digest it will save you hours of listening time.

I’ve been using podcast players for years that don’t have this feature. I started using Overcast less than a week ago to listen to the 30 podcasts I’m subscribed to. I listen to them while I drive, do chores around the house, and sometimes while I’m professionally designing what-not that doesn’t take my full concentration.

Smart Speed has saved me an extra 2 hours beyond speed adjustment alone, according to Overcast itself. So, leaving Smart Speed on its default functionality, and having it turned on all the time I’ve listened to podcasts in the last six days, it has cut out dead air in the audio playback significantly. If I wanted to go back to another podcast app, I would have to accept the fact that I would not have Smart Speed, as this is a relatively new sort of feature that doesn’t come in other apps at this time.

The other standout effect you can apply to audio playback in Overcast is Voice Boost, a vocal equalizer that enhances volume of voices of any sort. This makes it easy to hear quiet voices, and podcasters in general with muffled speech.

People’s voices tend to trail off when they are talking on the microphone for more than a few seconds at a time, as they are shorter on breath. With Voice Boost on, the people I listen to come through very clearly, as to be heard all the time. I spend very little time fiddling with the volume controls on my device with Voice Boost on.

There’s just a few times that Voice Boost doesn’t help.

  • When I’m in a room that is mostly quiet with little to no background noise, I notice that Vocal Boost is not necessary as it over-amplifies voices, to the point they make my ears ring.
  • When I’m listening to podcasts on headphones the same problem arises. If noise around me is especially quiet, then I notice that the voices seem overly enhanced to the point of grating on my nerves. They annunciate everything too clearly.

So, when the voices on a podcast sound unduly-engineered, I turn Overcast’s Voice Boost off.

Besides the two special features of Overcast, it has the other tried-and-true features that podcast listeners cannot live without, like:

  • Easy discovery of new shows to give a listen.
  • Subscribe to virtually any podcast with a feed online.
  • Playback speed adjustment, as to hear them faster than real time.
  • Playlists you can manually and somewhat automatically manipulate into presenting podcasts that meet your select criteria.
  • A clean and easy to read view of podcast show notes, as to give listeners access to links that producers add to their shows. Quickly jump to the web to view what they were discussing on the show, if it had a relevant link to a product or page online.

These are the most important details in Overcast, but there are many other little nuances you can tinker with in the app’s settings. Marco has stated that more features are on the way (like podcast streaming) and he’s also considering the development of an iPad and Mac version.

Overcast has room to grow, but how can it improve?

He hasn’t followed the mold of other podcatchers. With Overcast, he broke the mold and made something that seems familiar enough that also pushes podcast-listening into a better experience for the users. Marco gave Overcast a lot of thoughtful consideration before the 1.0 release.

It’s a bit more social than other podcast apps with Twitter integration, so you can quickly see a list of podcasts people you follow on Twitter recommend. It has the Voice Boost and Smart Speed features that address long-standing problems for users’ audio listening experience. The Overcast app for iPhone (which is all there is at this time) keeps features simple and delightful to use.

What it needs to sweeten the deal in future updates is difficult to say. I don’t think that Overcast should add features that make it more-or-less feature comparable to other podcatchers. If Overcast has the exact same features as, say, Pocket Casts, then it would lose its uniqueness. It’s not going to be all things to all podcast listeners. Overcast is going to be Marco’s podcatcher. Overcast is already a great app because it is meeting this niche in the niche. (Marco just happens to have good app tastes.)

The only feature I would like to see is a dark theme to the design interface. Overcast sports a mostly light (white) background with colored text and icon buttons (black, orange, and blue-green in color). When I’m driving at night, the iPhone’s display can appear especially bright while docked on my car’s dashboard. I would like to see a quick toggle control to make it dark-themed, like the Unread app sports?

Does Overcast blow away the competition?

No, of course not. The competition is alive and well. Pocket Casts is still a tremendous app, and I give it five stars. Most users won’t find good enough reason to try Overcast if they are happy with the podcatcher they currently use.

I wouldn’t call myself a power user of podcast apps. I listen to 30 podcasts every week, but I don’t like lots of fiddly settings. Overcast is, at the moment, streamlined. Even though I find some of the interface design unintuitive, it works speedily and I don’t experience hang-ups of any sort in Overcast.

Other podcast players will probably try to match Overcast’s Voice Boost and Smart Speed features so they can out-do Marco’s app. So what? Others have developed apps to out-do Instapaper, but I still use Instapaper because it works well for my reading time.

So, Overcast is the podcast app I will use for the foreseeable future. It’s just that great.

Determine What You Need to Communicate

A single coffee bean

There are two schools of thought about better design: either you make designs based on looks, or you make them based on how they work. I live by the latter. You might try to serve both end goals but you will fail.

In fact, designers that design for the product’s looks often capitalize on pleasing themselves (their own sensibilities) rather than communicating through their design to the market. This is essentially what George Lucas did when he directed the Star Wars prequels. It makes for bad movies and bad design work.

It’s the equivalent of the designer singing to himself in the shower. He does it for his own gratification. And does he really want an audience? Is he serving them well? I don’t think so. If he cares about them then they are at best secondary concerns.

How something looks, sounds, and feels will communicate a great deal—not just about your artistic sensibilities, but it will also invoke the character of the product your designing around. This is how it works.

I design lots of coffee labels for Thrasher Coffee these days. With each one I start with a theme for the new name of a whole bean coffee product. I determine what I’d like its persona to represent. Then, through my design, I want to make something that communicates thoughts and emotions behind the name.

  • I may want the design to reflect the company’s name, Thrasher Coffee.
  • It might be more advantageous to create a design that emphasizes the characteristics of the product rather than the company’s brand.
  • If the coffee is named “Adrenaline” or “Homestead” I want to reflect characteristics of the unique name (and not just the product [the coffee beans]) in the design as well.

A decent designer will be able to elaborate on his project goals. He can share his thoughts about his designs: what he wants his work to represent and why—how the colors, fonts, and illustrations work in tandem to send a specific message to his audience or customers.

The artists that don’t design around how something works can make pretty pictures, music, and other kinds of widgets, but they are missing the point. The design itself is rarely worthy of being the end unto itself.

Review of 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a decent movie. Whether you have seen the first film in this reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or not, you should enjoy it.

If you don’t usually enjoy dystopian Sci-Fi films, such as these, then you might like this one. I don’t care for them either, but this one is well-made. I’m new to the Apes franchise and I enjoyed it a lot. If you are interested, check out my spoiler-free review at MovieByte.

A Better Way to Discover Good Netflix Content

I have wasted lots of time browsing Netflix to find movies worth watching. The algorithms that present suggestions for me based on what I have previously watched are not accurate to my tastes. When I visit my Netflix account, usually 90% or more of the recommendations presented don’t interest me. I end up searching for movie titles that friends have recommended, only to find that most of those movies aren’t available for video streaming. Go figure.

A solution: A Better Queue presents all the movies that are available for video on demand with very high ratings and reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. So, no more hunting for good content for me. If I’m looking for new entertainment, this site is the place I start.

Not that I like everything that comes highly rated, but Rotten Tomatoes is a better place to start than Netflix. I have found RT is more accurate about the quality of a film. I care more about the quality than some Netflix metric that thinks that if I watch one Johnny Depp movie I’ll like the rest of his filmography, or that if I’ve watched one thriller I will watch lots of other thrillers.

(Via UltraLinx)

Significant Projects for the Rest of 2014

To those that wonder why I’ve not updated this site daily, as of late, it’s because I’m really excited to be working on a few summer projects. Work/work balance is the toughest: knowing how much attention to give to many great active projects that you have all at once.

Here’s how I want to proceed with the rest of 2014.

The Return of the MovieByte-er

I’m returning to The MovieByte Podcast, which I started in the summer of 2012 with TJ Draper. This podcast is fun-filled with movie news and reviews of new releases. TJ has kept the lights on in the studio for MovieByte’s podcast since the beginning, and I have to acknowledge he’s produced many great episodes over the show run.

I am back as a regular host, along with TJ and my original replacement, Chad Hopkins.

The Return of the Movieology-ist

What I’m really excited to announce is that, unless a tidal wave comes through my neighborhood and takes all my computer-y possessions away, I’m rebooting the Movieology podcast.

The Movieology web show was a real passion of mine. I cared about that production with all my heart. When we needed to put it on hiatus in January of 2012, I was sorely disappointed. Movieology watchers had only good things to say, and they followed up with many requests for its quick return.

Since the day we iced Movieology, I’ve seen interest for it steadily grow. New subscribers trickle in at YouTube each week. Even though that web show hasn’t seen a new release since January 2, 2012, people are subscribing! That’s an important sign: Movieology is meeting a need even during its lengthy intermission.

The “pilot” episodes of the Movieology podcast have been a clear indicator of listeners’ interest as well. The first 8 episodes have a good number of listens each. Considering we didn’t publicize the podcast, and that we erratically released those 8 episodes over the course of a year, I would say that the response is highly favorable. People want to hear our discussion of worldviews in movies.

We have all positive feedback for the podcast, in spite of it’s idiosyncrasies. Just take a listen to the beginning of the first seven episodes of the Movieology podcast and you’ll know what I’m referrring to.

I purposefully made some production choices to test the listeners’ tolerance for casual silliness. My “tests” on our audience weren’t crazy or diabolical, like something Facebook would do to its users. Rather, I just wanted to make the Movieology podcast casual and fun. And that said, people seem to enjoy the show for its content no matter what weirdness I tacked onto it.

Movieology is a show about inquisitiveness. Where discussion illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between movies, worldview, and human experience.

And since I’m ready to take Movieology to the next level, I want to know from our listeners what they want to hear from the podcast. What would you change? What films should we review? What worldview and philosophy topics would you like us to raise? I think our listeners are very smart people, like you, so now its your turn to speak up.

Let me know in a comment on this post what you would do, or message me on Twitter, or email me if that’s your style. I’m ready to take Movieology to the next level, and we—the Movieology hosts—can’t wait to make it truly unique among podcasts.

The writer strikes back (or something like that)

I’ve been compelled to write this blog since the spring of 2008. I’ve turned it inside out and upside down and reversed those steps time and again to make this site into something that I want to read. I have finally found its voice, and I’m ready to amp it up.

I’m seriously considering turning JoeDarnell.com into my full-time work. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11. I have carefully considered what I want to write for the last 18 years, and now I’m ready to type it out at full speed. So, you won’t see this blog going anywhere, and you might just see it go from good to…something better.

In the meantime, keep enjoying this: your friendly designer and Apple enthusiast’s blog. It will continue to be a big year.

Time to Cut Back on Email Newsletters

New rule for self: If I’m subscribed to an email newsletter, and I didn’t feel inclined to read or shop from it in the last three to five issues, I’m unsubscribing.

The reason I need this rule is that I like subscriptions that pertain to my interests. Each of them are cool on their own. None of them are spam. They are harmless newsletters that I consider worthy to make it to my mailbox. (I’m encouraged to read newsletters that are consistently not spammy.)

Then the newsletters start piling up. I glance at any of them that I’ve not “read” about once a day. If today’s doesn’t interest me I’ll archive it quickly. If I found something of interest, I click on it and then archive the newsletter.

I do this almost every day with roughly 20 subscriptions. It takes me 3 seconds to process one email on average, so it would seem, on the surface, that I’m not killing time in my inbox.

Oh, but the mind-suck is much greater than those three seconds. Once I’m distracted by the newsletters my mind wanders. If it’s two or three newsletters then they are harmless. But the more I have, the more I’m distracted.

I find that by the time I realize what I’m doing twenty minutes later, all those newsletters together sent me on an Internet scavenger hunt with no apparent goal in mind. The newsletters, matched with my habitual weakness for distractions, leads to time-suck away from what I want to do.

If I have less in my mailbox, I will spend less time letting my mind wonder. I will hop in to look at a few newsletters that I find most beneficial, and get right back to work before my mind has drifted into daydreams and aimless Internet scavenger hunts.

At best, the worthy newsletters take less than two minutes to process. If they have especially interesting content to read or shop for then they may cause me to spend more than 10 minutes processing them. Either way, the fewer newsletters to read the better.

How does that Bible verse go? “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor. 6:12)

That’s what I have to avoid: letting email dominate me for no apparent reason. Doesn’t matter if the emails are harmless, or that they are related to my interest. If they cause me to squander precious time, they are the enemy.

And I need less enemies in my mailbox right now.

I’m The Problem

Michael Lopp at Rands in Repose:

I eagerly evaluate every new productivity solution that shows up because I truly want them to be “the one,” but after doing this for over a decade, I’m certain the tool isn’t the problem. I am. Where the innovation needs to occur is not within Asana, Things, or Workflowy, it’s with how I choose to spend my time. It’s developing a well defined protocol for myself regarding maintaining my to-do list, and then religiously following this protocol and consistently investing my time.

I’ve come to the same conclusion. Gotta take responsibility for our flaws. The tools and apps point me in the right direction, but I have to discipline myself to stay the course.

Task management isn’t auto-performed by my tools. I have to take charge of my actions, or I become the problem maker.

Beats Rocks Colors

Khoi Vihn at Subtraction:

This reminded me immediately of what I wrote wrote last month about “Wearables, Fashion and iWatch”: iWatch, if it exists, will need to be more of a fashionable good than Apple has ever created before; fashionable goods depend in part on variability in order to satisfy individualized consumer expression; and creating variability at scale is the key economic challenge of wearables. It’s very difficult to successfully produce and deliver truly variable technology goods; that’s why iPods have never come in more than four or five colors and why Apple had such a hard time creating a white iPhone on its first time trying.

It seems that the Beats team has figured this out, at least in part. Sixty different SKUs for headphones alone is a lot of items to manage, a lot of materials to source in the pipeline, a lot of shipping logistics to orchestrate. This number also shows how finely Beats has been able to parse consumer desire and to create product variations that map to them—who knew hip-hop fans would want a matte black version with a German flag-like design? Beats knew, and they’re apparently selling tons of them.

Now that I think about it, Apple has not been successful with colors of their hardware. The colors never seem to take off market-wide. The red iPod is sometimes "cool" but the other colors are always changing and I’ve heard a lot of consumers say they’re disappointed in the options.

When Apple colorizes the iPods, the end results scuffs easily. The color sometimes fades away. They show dirt easily. Not only do these wear-and-tear problems easily arise, but the products sometimes fail to even represent the color correctly, as in the case of white iPhones.

Beats has the colors of wearables down to a science that actually clicks with consumers. If Beats by Dr. Dre doesn’t assist Apple’s production of wearables like the iWatch, or expand the color options for iPods, then I feel that Apple is wasting a great resource. They probably would have some logic to not using Beat’s production expertise, but the market would miss out on a more colorful Apple product line.

So Khoi is probably right.

Review of ‘Earth to Echo’

In today’s new episode of the MovieByte podcast, I discuss film news with Clark Douglas and TJ Draper. We also spent a good deal of time reviewing the sci-fi flick called Earth to Echo.

Earth to Echo is the YouTube-like documentary of Tuck, a teenage camera enthusiast. He and his two best friends, Munch and Alex, are about to relocate and part ways because of a mysterious interstate project that will tear down their town.

When their smart phones seemingly go on the fritz and display bizarre coordinates in the desert, the boys decide to spend their last night together following these mysterious directions to see if there’s a good story to be found in them. The maps on their devices lead them to the discovery of a robotic alien in need of help.

Along the way, the boys encounter difficulty from government agents that wish to exploit the alien for scientific research.

Earth to Echo was clearly made by filmmakers that adored E.T. in no subtle way. This movie echoes Spielberg’s film. Spielberg’s is clearly the better film because it is more-or-less the original and has less plot contrivances. I like that Echo is a cleaner film, but that doesn’t make up for its weak story.

The alien the boys call Echo doesn’t make sense. He reminds me of WALL•E, or what WALL•E would be like if it were possible for him to be a baby of a robot. Echo performs very dangerous spectacles without much rhyme or reason, putting people in harms way for a fleeting moment of adrenaline-inducing special effects.

Other than that, the acting is so-so, the cinematography is only okay, and the point of it all is lost. That said, TJ, Clark and I had a great time discussing it on the MovieByte podcast. The film news at the top of the show was a lot of fun to chat up as well.