20 Nov 2018

iPad as a computer replacement

There has been a lot of debate on the internet about whether or not an iPad can replace your laptop. This debate has reached vitriolic levels since Apple released the latest batch of 2018 iPad Pros, mainly because Apple specifically targeted traditional laptop usage in their launch event.

I’ve been a fan of the iPad even since it launched, and have owned each of the Pro models. I recently acquired the 11” 2018 Pro and a Pencil (I originally tried the 12.9” with a keyboard folio, but found it just too large for my usage requirements). I’m not going to tell you that an iPad can replace your laptop, but I am going to tell you why it has done for me, for most of my computing usage. In fact, for me the question isn’t “can an iPad replace your laptop” it’s become “can a laptop replace your iPad”, and for many of my uses the answer to that is a resounding “no”.

Setting up a Mac Mini

Lest you take me for some kind of wacky new-age computer user, I should let you know that I’m a dyed in the wool Mac fan too. I’ve been using Macs since 1988, and I use one for at least 8 hours a day when working as an app developer. My main computer personally is a Touch Bar Mac Book Pro.

This weekend I dusted off (literally!) an old 2011 Mac Mini which has been sitting idle of a couple of years. I decided my daughter could make good use of this, so coupling it with an old, but excellent, 23” Cinema Display I set it up for her to use. I’d previously upgraded the Mini with an SSD, but other that than it was a stock 2.0GHz i7 machine with 16GB of RAM - and despite being 6 years old it’s still a solid machine that compares well with todays offerings. That in itself says something about the slow pace of progress we’ve got used to for PCs and Macs.

Setting up the machine was a breeze - it wont run the very latest OS, Mojave, but it does run the previous version, High Sierra. All the apps I needed could be downloaded from the App Store, and I had literally zero problems setting everything up. It’s a pleasure to use, and that 23” monitor is glorious in 1900x1200 resolution - and I’m someone who’s used to a 4K monitor and my Macbook’s Retina screen.

Laptops Suck

Setting up this Mini really confirmed something in my mind. Laptops suck. Laptops are a form factor that has become so popular that they are now the standard computer for almost everybody. But a laptop design is a huge compromise: the screen and keyboard are too close, with the keyboard at the correct position the screen is far too low and close. The trackpad is also in an unergonomic position. The small form factor limits the capacity and expandability - I hope you MacBook Air users are happy with 2 USB-C ports. Laptops are also expensive, for the power they offer. They are also compromised on battery life and weight - these two factors are always in a trade off against each other.

I’m convinced that, for most people, working on a laptop is a terrible idea. If you are working for any more than short periods, you need to be sat at a desk. And if you’re sat at a desk you should have a proper ergonomic setup in order to prevent crippling neck and back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Therefore, if you are doing any significant amount of work on a computer you’re better served with a desktop computer - an iMac, Mac Mini or Pro (for Mac users).

If you absolutely need to have the portability of a laptop, then you should be using a desktop monitor most of the time, and disconnect your laptop when travelling (don’t get me started on people taking laptops to meetings!). But in doing so realise that you’re accepting a compromised and limited machine compared to what you could be using for the same budget if you’d bought a desktop computer.

An iPad use case example

“I thought you were going to talk about iPads?” I hear you ask. OK, let me illustrate with an example. After setting up the Mac Mini at the weekend, I headed over to watch my daughter swimming in a gala - a large ‘open meet’ where swimmers from dozens of clubs participate in multiple events as individuals, trying to win a medal and set a good time that will qualify them for the county championships.

The programme for this meet was a dense list of events and swimmers names and personal best times, running to 20-odd pages. It’s important to follow along with the programme so that you have a reasonable idea of who the actual competition is for your child, and what times they are setting. I used PDF Viewer on the iPad Pro to do this, using it’s search feature to quickly find names and the Apple Pencil to highlight them and note down times.

Galas are long and at times pretty boring, so having something else to do is useful. I opened up the Kindle app in split view, and finished reading John Sopel’s excellent book “If Only They Didn’t Speak English”. Having the book in split view meant I could keep an eye on the times of the swimmers but also read my book without having to context switch at all.

Of course, when it came to the races I was really interested in, I wanted to time them. This I did by running the Clock app in stopwatch mode in Slideover - the app runs as a panel on the right side of the screen that you can side out of the way and bring back with a swipe. This worked extremely well - now not only could I read my book and keep an eye on the qualifying times, but I could time the races and note them down on the pdf with my pencil.

It struck me that this is something that you just couldn’t - or wouldn’t - do on any other device. A phone just doesn’t have the screen space, even the very largest ones available today don’t come close to an iPad for screen size. And you wouldn’t want to sit reading a book on your laptop - have you ever read a book on a laptop? I haven’t. You wouldn’t be able to use a writing tool to quickly mark up a PDF document on a laptop either - at least not on a Mac. My iPad has LTE, so I was able to check the news and Twitter and email too - there’s no Mac laptop that has built in cellular networking.

Battery life was simply a non-issue, whereas using a MacBook for this length of time just wouldn’t have been possible (there don’t tend to be power outlets at swimming pools!)

Here was a perfect example of a usage where the iPad comes into it’s own. I suppose you could do something similar on a Windows Surface machine, which retains a full ‘desktop’ OS as well as touch features. I see a fair few of these being used on trains these days - however I have never seen a Surface tablet being used as a tablet. They always seem to be used laptop style, with a keyboard and trackpad. I did once see someone try interacting by touching the screen, but she quickly gave up and restarted to the trackpad. So I tend to discount Surfaces as tablets.

So here’s where I tell you an iPad is better than a laptop

I firmly believe that laptops are a bad choice for most people, unless you really need to work whilst actually on the move. If you must use a laptop, get a proper desktop setup for your main work location, with a monitor and keyboard.

But I also think that for most domestic use an iPad can absolutely replace a computer, and in certain usages there is no other device that can come close to it. The same is true of a phone, for a subset of these tasks - and it’s true that in parts of the world a phone is the only computer most people have or have any intention of owning.

Can an iPad replace a laptop? Definitely, and for certain things there’s nothing else that comes close. But what you should probably replace your laptop with is a desktop and use the desktop when your’e working. Use your iPad for everything else. That’s what I would do.


13 Sep 2018

Sector 2.3

Sector 2.3 has been submitted to the app store. This fixes the cause of the main crashes in the app - memory usage and multithreading.

The mapping code has beein completely re-written to draw the map much more quickly and efficiently, using far less memory. This means the map will display more quickly, you’ll be able to scroll more smoothly, and the app as a whole will be more stable and less likely to crash. I’ve also taken the chance to tweak some of the presentation of map elements, to make things closer to canonical Traveller maps whilst still retaining the high level of information density unique to Sector maps.

The calculation of trade routes was also a cause of bugs and crashes, and this has been cleaned up. There should now hopefully be no crashes cause when the app calculates trade routes between systems.


26 Oct 2017

Sector 2.2

Sector version 2.2 will be hitting the App Store today. With this update, I’m happy to say that I’ve completed all the main features I wanted to support when I started this project.

You can now import and export sector files - export options include text based listings, and best of all PDF. Now you can share a PDF of your game map with your players!

I hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to leave a review!


17 Oct 2017

Sector Update

I’ve started working on a few new features for Sector. First up, something that I think people will be very happy to see:

If you’re a Traveller fan, you’ll probably recognise those names - they are worlds from the Spinward Marches, one of the most iconic sectors in the official Traveller universe. That’s right - Sector will soon be able to import standard format sector files!

This means you’ll be able to import the map for your existing Traveller campaign right into Sector. I’m very excited about this feature!

One thing to note is that the import process only supports the main information fields - some of the additional T5 data is proprietary and not part of the Traveller SRD. Sector will import the hex location, name, UPP, travel zone and 3 digit ‘population, belts and gas giants’ data. Anything else above that will be procedurally generated - most notably trade routes. The import tries to be as flexible as possible, so as long as these fields are present in that order in the data file, it should work.

Trade routes do take into account the usual factors, as well as the ‘importance value’ if that’s present in the import data.

The other side to import is export. This is less important, but I’m hoping to add this too, so that you can export out the full listing of your generated sectors for reference.

Further afield

I’m still working on ways to create a image or PDF version of the map for export. This is a much requested feature. Unfortunately, it’s technically quite hard to implement with the way the map is currently being generated. I’m hoping I’ll find a solution that allows me to export an image or PDF without requiring me to rewrite the entire way the map is created.

The main problem is that Sector uses a lot of views to create the map - so many that it actually has to be a bit sneaky and does things like unload hexes that aren’t visible on-screen. In order to generate an entire sector or even just subsector map I’d have to load lots and lots of hexes at once, and doing this without crashing the app with an out of memory exception is quite challenging.

The approach I’m hoping to take is to instead render each map hex into an image, and use that to display the map. This will reduce the memory overhead immediately by something like a factor of 10 or 20. This should also greatly speed up map scrolling, and possibly also allow me to zoom the map right out instead of restricting it as is currently the case.

I hope you’re enjoying the app - keep on Travelling!


23 May 2017

Endeavour

At the end of March 2017, NASA published a new website for searching their entire, consolidated image archive. Along with this, they also published a new public API that allows access to the search engine.

Being a native app developer, I naturally started experimenting with writing an app to search this API. It also helped that the web app was pretty crummy.

Couple of weeks later, and I launched Endeavour as a free download on iOS.

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I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, although there are still some tweaks to make and things to add. I went free-with-ads as opposed to paid-download because I’m competing directly against another app from NASA themselves, and that’s a hard sell. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t seem as if the NASA app has been updated to use the new API, and it actually returns far fewer images for the same search terms.

I also think my app offers a better experience, as the NASA app will just leave you at a black screen with no progress indicator while it downloads a full size image. I took a different approach to this: I take the existing thumbnail you’ve already downloaded, and display that while the full size image is downloading. Then, when the full size image has been fetched, I transparently replace the thumbnail version with the full size one - the only thing the user notices is that the image quality suddenly increases.

There’s a huge wealth of incredible photography available to view - from the very earliest unmanned probes and early manned missions, to the very latest photos from Pluto and Saturn, as well as tons of launch photos from the shuttle era.

To date, downloads have been disappointing. I’m not sure of the reason for this - I’ve promoted it in a few obvious places, and it’s free to download so I would have expected a higher number of downloads.

Please download it and enjoy exploring our solar system and beyond!


23 May 2017

Sector - adventures in procedural mapping

Back in 1988 I was studying for my computer science A-level. At the time, this meant writing relatively simple apps in BBC Basic on the BBC model B computer. Things weren’t going so well, because we were quite distracted in class by a game someone had copied - Elite.1

Elite screenshot - Wikipedia

In Elite you played a space ship captain, flying between space stations in different star systems, trading to make a profit and fighting off pirates - all rendered in groundbreaking 3D line graphics. But what was really amazing to me wasn’t the graphics or the gameplay, it was the sheer amount of game that had been some how squeezed onto an 880KB floppy disk.

There were eight galaxies of 256 different worlds you could fly between. Each had descriptions and names, and active trading markets. You couldn’t fit that much content onto a disk that small. How did it do it? Was it using some kind of compression? No.

The secret to this magic of course was procedural generation. Instead of storing the details for every world, the game stored rules about how these details could be generated on the fly. When the game run, the galaxy was created in memory there and then. When you visited a star system, the worlds and stations, names and commodities were generated on the fly as you hyperspaced in. And although based on random generation, computers will, given the same started ‘seed’, generate exactly the same details every time.

The idea that entire, complex structures could be generated from a simple set of rules fascinated me. It turns out it wasn’t exactly a new idea. Another space game was already using this technique to generate entire galaxies of stars and worlds. This game, however, used dice and paper : Traveller.

Inside this collection of ‘little black books’ you could, with the help of nothing more than a sheet of paper a pencil and a couple of regular 6-sided dice, roll up vast ‘sectors’ of space and populate them with worlds and cultures of your own creation. The only drawback was the time it took - but I remember spending hours rolling up subsectors of worlds just for the fun of it.

The results were plotted onto a hexagonal grid map that ended up looking something like this:

traditional Traveller map

Several years ago I started playing around with a web app to generate sector maps automatically, using the rules encoded in the various editions of Traveller. The script I build in Ruby used ImageMagick to draw the maps, and running on a G5 Mac Pro took several minutes per subsector (a maximum of 80 worlds). Nevertheless, the images it produced were pretty attractive:

Ruby generator output

I embellished the standard maps with colour - using the colour of the world to indicate the surface type, and the border of it to indicate it’s atmosphere. I also added icons for various bases and travel codes (additional details you generate for a world, a kind of short hand saying if the place his rich or a desert or a garden world, etc).

Although the project languished after that, I still retained a fascination with procedural generation and mapping. Years later I decided to revisit this idea, and see what I could do with current technology.

Introducing Sector

Sector on the iPad

Sector is my Ruby Traveller mapping app brought up to date and build for iOS. It’s been completely re-written in Swift 3, and running on the latest devices it will generate an entire sector (that’s 16 subsectors of 80 hexes) in an instant.

In the years since I wrote the original Ruby code, Traveller has been published in an open source ‘System Reference Document’ - and this is the basis of the rules that Sector uses.

In addition to the basic mapping and colour coding, Sector also draws in ‘trade routes’ - lines of communication or commerce between the worlds. This gives more context to the map, and you can get some idea of the relationships between the worlds. It also generates names for everything - the worlds themselves, and also the clusters and voids that exist on the map are named. Names are created based on a dictionary of real English worlds as well as place names from around the world, so the generated worlds have names that at least sound familiar and pronounceable.

There are still things I’d like to add - printing out the map or sharing it as an image are top of the list. But, as it stands I’m very pleased with the result, and it was a fun project to work on - even if I never want to see a hexagon again!

You can download it on the App Store

  1. Elite is still going strong - and I’m still playing it! The latest version models the entire galaxy, including detailed world surfaces. You should check it out 


12 Feb 2016

iPad can’t replace my computer, but I don’t care

There’s an assertion doing the rounds lately that the iPad can’t replace your laptop. Well, for me that’s certainly true : I need a Mac to do my job.

As an iOS app developer, when I sit down to work it’s invariably and necessarily in front of a Mac. MacBooks seem to be the favoured weapon of choice for developers of all persuasions these days, but I personally work better at a desktop machine - so an iMac is my preferred tool. App developers need a Mac because Xcode - the tool for building Mac and iOS apps - only runs on Macs. Other powerful tools compliment this, the Unix command line, GUI clients for source control, and design and graphics apps - making the Mac a productivity powerhouse.

But any time I’m not ‘working’ at app development, I pick up my iPad. In fact, I’m writing this on the train using my iPad. I haven’t bothered to connect to the slow on-board WiFi because the iPad has it’s own 4G connection. I’m typing as fast as I can on my laptop because I’m using the Smart Cover keyboard1.

I work away from home during the week, and usually pack my iPad and my personal single port MacBook (I have a work-owned machine that I use during the day). But I rarely, if ever, crack open the Macbook. The only times I turn it on are when I need to do some coding on my own personal apps, and the odd occasion that some task really require the additional flexibility that Mac OS offers. But those times are rare.

Not only is the iPad a capable productivity and entertainment device, there are things it does that the Mac can’t hope to compete with. Start listening to music on your AirPods, and chuck the iPad in your bag and head out. Guess what - the music keeps on playing. Try that on a Mac. Want to sketch out some ideas? Pull out the Pencil and fire up Linea (or on iOS11, just tap the pencil to the screen and start drawing).

My default machine is the iPad. It’s the thing I reach for when I want to write and email or a blog post, browse a web site or read the news, watch a movie or listen to music2. I only defer back to the Mac if I hit some roadblock where I know I could do the task more easily on a Mac.

Don’t get me wrong - I love the MacBook too. It’s tiny and lightweight, and has a great keyboard and screen. But I think it might be the last MacBook I own. In future I think I’ll stick with an iPad for portability, and a desktop Mac for work.

So for me, I couldn’t completely replace my Mac with an iPad. But - like any developer - I’m an outlier. For the majority of people and iPad can, and does, excel as their only computing device.

  1. I do wish the iPad had a preference for key repeat rate though - I find deleting too slow for my tastes. 

  2. Apple really did a great job on the speakers on the iPads Pro - they are fantastic! 


28 Jan 2016

Xcode - the developer's worst best friend ?

David Barnard posts a thoughtful piece about how Apple shapes the The App Store as an Economy.

It’s mostly spot on, but this off the cuff comment was a little harsh:

Tooling - It may seem far fetched, but the capabilities of Xcode shape the App Store economy. By pushing interface builder and auto layout, Apple has encouraged developers to build universal apps and made it more cumbersome to build separate iPad/iPhone apps. Bugs, crashes, and other deficiences of Xcode likely cost developers millions of hours of productivity each year, which has obvious implications for the App Store economy.

I think it’s a little egregious to claim that ‘millions’ of hours of developer time is wasted due Xcode bugs, crashing and other failings. I use Xcode for a minimum of 8 hours a day as part of my job and I don’t recall the last time it crashed on me other than maybe when switching git branches that altered the project file in a major way.

It Xcode perfect ? No, of course not. I can list a number of things I’d like to see urgently - not least real refactoring tools and a better debugger (and the list goes on…)

But I think we have to also acknowledge the huge amount of time and effort that Xcode saves developers. Apple’s big push to use Autolayout has undoubtably saved me tens, even hundreds of hours personally, and new features like UIStackView will continue that trend.

Xcode’s recent improvements to units test support has also been a big benefit, encouraging developers to write tests and keeping them informed about their testing history. UI test also got a huge shot in the arm with Xcode 7.

I know that Apple know that developers have a love/hate relationship with Xcode. But they are obviously working hard on improving the tooling and the results are bearing fruit. I think the perception that Xcode is a buggy, crashy nightmare is at least a couple of years out of date.

What do we want ? “Better tooling”. When do we want it? “Yesterday” ! But in the meantime, Xcode actually does a pretty decent job.