Apps offer useful complexity with simple interface
A to-do list and a podcast player. It’s harder than you think to make them work well. But these two apps offer a clean interface and belies the thought put into them.
Special to The Seattle Times
Ask any software developer (or designer or writer or builder) and you’ll learn that often the most difficult things to implement well are the ones that appear simple.
Two very different examples come to mind, with applications that remain clean and approachable while simultaneously offer useful complexity.
OmniFocus 2: The first is eminently practical: the to-do list. You can make lists in any text editor, for instance, or use a dedicated app (such as Wunderlist, with a version 3.0 coming soon that I’m looking forward to trying;).
But some people want more than checkboxes. For them, the solution is OmniFocus 2 from Seattle-based The Omni Group (). OmniFocus 2 is available for the iPhone and, just recently, OS X; a version for the iPad is in the works. (OmniFocus 1 on the iPad works just fine with your data, so there’s no artificial barrier between versions.)
OmniFocus is built around David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach, which (I’m being simplistic) boils down to the idea that you’re more effective at completing things if you get every task out of your head that would be distracting you. Instead of cluttering your brain with the knowledge you need to buy milk and also complete a 10-page report, jot them both down and tackle them when it’s most appropriate.
To that end, OmniFocus can spin wildly — but controllably — out into perspectives such as contexts (the store, where you’d buy the milk), projects (where you’d break down the steps needed to finish the report), and a catchall inbox for everything else.
Version 2 on the Mac overhauls the look and feel of the application for the modern, iOS 7-inspired age — less decoration, cleaner design — and eschews floating palettes for a one-window approach with optional sidebars that deliver nitty-gritty details like due dates and notes.
Checkboxes are now “status circles,” which sounds like the Omni folks just swapped one shape for another, but in fact deliver more information. It’s easy to identify items that are flagged, deferred, due, or set to repeat, just by looking at the circle. (And when you complete a task, you get to nail the large target with a checkmark, which I find satisfying.)
Despite the many options, the one I use the most is a perspective called Forecast, revealing what’s due over the next few days and optionally displays events from my calendar. It greatly helps me prioritize what I need to tackle today and tomorrow.
And, of course, all of the data syncs smoothly in the background between iOS versions, so I always have my one true list wherever I am.
OmniFocus 2 is relatively expensive: $39.99 for a standard individual license, or $79.99 for OmniFocus Pro. (See to compare the differences.) However, if you thrive on that level of detail without being overwhelmed, OmniFocus 2 is for you.
Overcast: The second example of complexity hidden in something that appears simple is listening to podcasts. Essentially, a podcast episode is just an audio file downloaded to your computer, phone or tablet.
However, you don’t listen to podcasts the way you listen to music albums. Podcasts appear like TV shows on a regular (or irregular) schedule, and mostly comprise people talking.
Developer Marco Arment, who was instrumental in creating Tumblr and published the iOS app Instapaper (since sold), this week released Overcast, a new podcast playback app for the iPhone (and iPad in emulation mode).
Podcast apps aren’t new, but the category is a great example of how quickly a developer can drive into the weeds trying to provide compelling features.
In addition to having a spare, useful interface, Overcast includes two features that appeal to me.
Smart Speed performs what I think is a podcast public service: it “shortens silences” in a podcast to reduce the running time. The majority of podcasts, I’m afraid, are long and rambling; call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t have two hours to listen to hosts bounce around random thoughts.
The solution in most apps is to speed up playback, but even at small increments it sounds like the Chipmunks to me. (And some people speak so fast by nature that speeding them up makes them unintelligible.)
Smart Speed compresses the silent gaps without distorting the speakers noticeably. For example, a favorite podcast of mine is KCRW’s Martini Shot, an inside-the-biz weekly podcast about Hollywood.
Smart Speed let me listen to a 3 minute 31 second episode in 3 minutes 16 seconds. That’s just a small sample from a podcast that’s scripted and delivered well; the time savings in most podcasts can be substantial.
Another feature, Voice Boost, helps solve the problem of varying audio levels among podcast participants, who are often calling in from remote locations using a wide range of connections and microphones. Voice Boost increases the overall volume and also equalizes speakers’ volumes. It helps if you’re listening in the car during a commute and competing with road noise.
I also particularly like the implementation of podcast playlists, with features such as being able to prioritize podcasts so new episodes play earlier and manual reordering of episodes.
Overcast is free for basic playback, or $4.99 as an in-app purchase to unlock these features and others like downloads over cellular connections. One feature I’d like to see in the future is episode streaming, not just downloading, but you can’t have everything in a 1.0 version.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.
About Practical Mac | Jeff Carlson
Mac owners, this is for you. Practical Mac explores Apple's new software offerings, hardware upgrades and more. Appears every other Saturday.