Castr…oh!

From the Supertop blog:

We have some news to share. Tiny has purchased a majority stake in Castro. We are still shareholders and will continue working on the app full time.

I would have loved to see Castro and Supertop thrive as an independent gig. On paper, this is good news because it means that the app will be more sustainable thanks to the financial support offered by the new majority stakeholder.

Castro has reached a size where the demands of running the business have been pulling us in too many different directions. We haven’t been able to focus as much on the core work of designing and building a product. Selling to Tiny gets Castro access to more resources, contacts and expertise. By growing the team we can specialize our roles to be more focused individually and get more done collectively. We can get back to what we’re good at and what we love doing.

On the bright side, this might get us the long anticipated iPad version. Who knows, maybe Castro 4 (that is also discussed in the article) will be released as a universal app. I certainly wouldn't mind.

Pocket Casts 7 vs. Castro 3

The other day, a thought crossed my mind about whether I have an app on my iPhone where I have zero complaints about. After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that the app that comes closest to this ideal is the podcast player Castro.

Fast forward a couple of days, a new version of the rivaling app Pocket Casts was released and I just can’t ignore the release of a new (version of a) podcast player, even if I try.

I’ve been a user of Pocket Casts for some time and switched away for Overcast, and then for Castro 3. Would the new version of Pocket Casts be able to win me over again?

Triaging

Castro is the still unchallenged king of triaging. In my personal experience, Pocket Casts doesn’t even come close, even after giving Pocket Casts a fair amount of time to get used to.

In Castro, new episodes are added either to the inbox or – depending on your preferences – directly to the queue1. You’d tap an episode in the inbox and then one of the icons (add to the front of the queue, add to the back of the queue, archive) that become visible below. Tap again. Done.

This is a very efficient process because it is possible to keep tapping, instead of a mix of tapping and swiping – which is one possible approach to triaging in Pocket Casts.

Swiping left on an episode yields two buttons to place the episode either to the front or the back of the queue.

Alternatively, it is also possible to tap the episode, upon which a detail view opens. This view has a button to place the episode in the queue. Pressing this button makes two further buttons appear below the details view to decide about placing the episode to either the front or the back of the queue.

That’s three taps, and you’ll realize that you may have moved around your finger over the entire iPhone display to complete the insertion into the queue. This creates an unnecessary friction in comparison to the tap and then tap one row down in Castro.

It is possible to auto-add new episodes to the “up next” list in Pocket Casts as well.

Skipping Chapters

Pocket Casts supports the skipping of an entire chapter of a podcast episode (if it has chapters) via the remote skip button on my headphones.

On the other hand, Castro not only implements skipping to the next chapter via remote and lock-screen, it also supports this really sweet feature where you can plan ahead and uncheck single chapters in the chapter list where, by default, all chapters are checked initially. Unchecked chapters are skipped, simple and easy.

However, this is only possible for currently playing episodes and you have to remind yourself to actively switch to the chapter list and make your choice. But this ability makes a world of difference for me. This is a true “killer-feature” that came out of nowhere, and boy was it appreciated.

Sync

Castro is effectively a one-device app and does not synchronize to any cloud service at all. Pocket Casts, on the other hand, supports multiple devices on multiple platforms and thus implements a sync mechanism.

While, on paper, this ability may become a game changer for people on the fence between using one of the two apps, Pocket Casts simply does not deliver.

In my test of Pocket Casts, I was listening to a longer episode of a podcast on my iPhone. After finishing, I spent some time on the iPad (where I did not use Pocket Casts in this seesion), then returned to the iPhone to continue listening.

But instead of starting to play the next episode, Pocket Casts started playing the already played episode again, roughly at the point where I started the session before last.

I can only assume that the iPhone synched with the iPad while I was using the iPad, and Pocket Casts on the iPad managed to convince Pocket Casts on the iPhone that time stamp on the iPad was more current and thus the iPhone started playing the already played episode again.

Queue

Actually, my preference for queue-based podcast-players was created as a byproduct of using Pocket Casts for a couple of months some years ago. At some point, it clicked and I never looked back.

The new Pocket Casts puts the “up next” list (in terms of Pocket Casts‘ terminology) below the now-playing view, which is … weird. I don’t like it at all because this makes accessing the queue unnecessarily cumbersome.

The concept of a queue is front and center in Castro and the app focuses on removing friction from putting into and reordering episodes in the queue.

Switching from inbox to queue and back is just a tap in Castro. In Pocket Casts, you have to tap the “now playing” screen and then scroll down to reach the list of upcoming episodes. It makes some kind of sense, if you think about it, but it again creates friction.

From the list of upcoming episodes, going back to the list of new episodes requires just a single tap, to be fair.

Episode Downloading Behavior

It is possible to configure both apps such that episodes get downloaded only if they are added to the queue resp. the “up next” list.

At least that’s what I understand from configuring Pocket Casts‘ settings. In reality, it does not seem as if episodes are downloaded ever, at least according to Pocket Casts‘ own reports.

This behavior is a bit frustrating because I prefer to download episodes I add to the queue. This gives me control over when and where I make the decision and I can safely assume that episodes in the queue are downloaded and would not stop playing when I lose connection to the Internet while playing the episode.

Sound

As a basis for side-by-side testing the sound, I took a radio broadcast that is also distributed as a podcast. This way, there’s at least some probability that the audio has been produced with a professional background.

I activated all voice enhancements and silence skipping features offered by both apps because that’s how I use to listen to podcasts.

To my surprise, when switching between Castro and Pocket Casts back and forth on the same iPhone with the same headphones, I got the impression that artifacts became audible in Pocket Casts‘ output. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that Pocket Casts may have a clipping problem. Castro delivered the same sequence flawlessly.

Back Catalog

The back catalog is another aspect where Castro shines. It is possible to subscribe to podcasts and still decide that new episodes do not even appear in the inbox and go straight to the archive. This way the episodes are easily accessible as part of the back catalog

Tapping on a podcast in the archive reveals the list of episodes. Played episodes are clearly marked as such and this makes a joy of going back into the back catalog and picking only unplayed episodes to listen to without ever accidentally picking an episode that was already played.

In Pocket Casts, there is also the concept of an archive. If I’m not mistaken, you have to unarchive an episode from the back catalog before being able to add it to the “up next” list with at least two additional taps. Friction, all the way down.

Conclusion

I tried to give Pocket Casts a fair chance of convincing me to switch. I try many apps, always on the lookout for improvements. And in many cases, I have left behind trusted workflows for something that just feels better and/or gives me an extended range of features over existing solutions.

But the verdict has never been clearer than in the case of Castro vs. Pocket Casts. Even though I see the lack of an iPad/Mac/web version of Castro as a real downer, I have absolutely no doubts that Castro remains the better alternative for my preferences for the time being.


  1. Auto-adding is not too important for me. I have only four podcasts out of more than 25 subscriptions that go straight to my queue. 

Calca

I had more or less given up the wait for another update of Calca, the markdown-capable text editor that can do math. It‘s been two years since the last update, with no support for the iPhone X screen in sight.

Last week, finally, that long-awaited update rolled in. According to the version history provided by the iOS App Store, the update comes with just two changes: support for iOS 11 (?) and the iPhone X‘s screen.

That seems … a bit … meager for the first update in two years, and I’d totally have some topics on a feature list that I’d like Calca to implement. But on the other hand, my wishes are mostly about usability1, as the core app is already crazy powerful.

I use Calca surprisingly often, it has earned a stable place on my homescreen2. It’s my go-to calculator for everything from dec-hex conversion, currency and VAT calculation, down to using the plot function to double-check my son’s homework.

And the best part is that you can write down the story of your calculation, with the calculation itself being an integral part of it.


  1. For example, a more powerful share functionality. At the moment, sharing a calculation is pretty much impossible apart from using the clipboard or mailing it via Mail.app. 
  2. A distinction that, quite frankly, no other app without iPhone X support ever managed to achieve so far. 

From Newton to Edison

As I already mentioned, the e-mail client Newton will be discontinued in just a couple of days. I had switched to it from Spark out of frustration about bugs and the opinionated design approach.

There is no perfect e-mail client on iOS. All available options are defined by their own individual composition of pros and cons. Newton is (or was) no exception to this rule.

Newton came out as my preferred choice based on the existence of unique features such as the ability to collapse single messages in a thread. It’s a small feature, but i loved it. No other app that I have come across has anything similar.

After the news about the discontinuation of Newton broke, I very hesitatingly started looking around for other options. As I thought I had a pretty good overview about the available options I wasn’t very optimistic to find a suitable replacement.

To my surprise, I discovered one app that had not yet appeared on my radar.

Enter Edison.

Edison was apparently created out of the ashes of another client that I have had a look at a while ago but wasn’t deeply impressed with. It was called E-Mail by EasilyDo at the time.

In many ways, Edison is the perfect successor to Newton. It supports a large portion of the features I used in Newton. The two apps implement a different design language1 but that’s fine for me.

In my experience, both apps are very stable and hardly ever show any bugs or unexpected behavior. That’s a big deal for me and sets both Newton and Edison apart for other e-mail apps that I have used before2.

Edison‘s sidebar is significantly wider than Newton‘s. To balance this, Edison comes with the ability to hide the sidebar and go full-screen. Newton does not have a similar option and also lacks Edison‘s ability to configure the different e-mail views and filters offered in the sidebar3.

On the other hand, Newton comes with some options to share a message, either to a collection of “connected services” or via the native iOS share sheet. If sharing is a must then Edison will not become your friend.

Literally, the only option for sharing is to invoke the iOS share sheet on selected text. I don’t understand why Edison is so limited with respect to sharing. It would be nice if this drawback could be removed in the future.

Newton has a bunch of special features branded as “superchargers”. But frankly, I do not care much for any of them, with the possible exception of the “snoozing” (which is meanwhile supported by almost any e-mail client except Apple’s).

Speaking of features, here is a short and subjective list of features that sets Edison apart from other e-mail clients I have used over the years:

  • In addition to the ability to mark an e-mail as read by means of a swipe it is also possible to simply drag the blue dot that identifies unread messages away from the message.
  • There is an “Assistant” section in the settings where active newsletter subscriptions can be managed. Also, this section offers a “Security” view that checks whether one of the configured e-mail addresses can be found in a list of known security breaches.
  • Notifications of incoming messages: I have seen other apps that would start to miss one or the other notification over time and eventually stop notifying of incoming messages at all. Edison is not one of those.

Edison is free to download and use. According to the support page money is made out of analyzing “commercial messages”:

To keep our services free for you to use, we collect and store information from commercial messages such as promotions and receipts. We remove any information that identifies you personally (emails, names, addresses), and aggregate it into research about ecommerce trends for businesses that purchase our Trends product.

It is possible to opt out of this analysis.

You control what data Edison can collect and store, with options to delete your data or to opt-out of our Trends product.

However, there’s obviously no guarantee that the switch to opt out really has any consequences. Naturally, I’m not very much in favor of such a “business model” and would much prefer to pay good money for Edison. But unfortunately, they wouldn’t take it.

Of all the existing alternatives, Edison seems to be the most viable for my personal requirements from the technical point of view. Whether I can live with the business model remains to be seen.


  1. Newton has a general grey tine that makes it appear calm and almost muted whereas Edison comes with a white background, blue accents, and bold typography that seems more at home in modern versions of iOS. 
  2. Airmail, I’m looking at you. 
  3. The options for configuring the sidebar are absolutely comparable to e.g. Spark or Airmail 

Got my Beats X replaced under warranty. The headphones died on the third day of my vacation, roughly ten month after purchase.

Instapaper saved

For the record, after a downtime of over two months, Instapaper finally became accessible to European users again1. Just when everyone was (rightfully) giving up hope for a happy ending, word came out that Pinterest is transferring ownership of the app to the developers who worked on the app during the Betaworks years.

In order to refinance work invested into the app by the new owners, Instapaper Premium makes its return in exchange for the same amount of money that the service charged before the acquisition by Pinterest.

Although I’m still a bit grumpy about the extended downtime I think I will become an Instapaper user again. Regrettably, the app hasn’t got much attention during the Pinterest years. I’d love to be convinced of the prospect of a brighter future by the advent of new features going forward.


  1. As a “token of apology” each user located in the EU gets six months of premium status for free. ↩︎

Newton to be discontinued

Out of the blue, Rohit Nadhani (CEO of CloudMagic) shared the sad news that Newton will be shut down on September 25th:

It was a tough business decision. We explored various business models but couldn’t successfully figure out profitability & growth over the long term. It was hard; the market for premium consumer mail apps is not big enough, and it faces stiff competition from high quality free apps from Google, Microsoft, and Apple. We put up a hard and honest fight, but it was not enough to overcome the bundling & platform default advantages enjoyed by the large tech companies.

For me, this is really a blow. In March, I’ve bitten the bullet and subscribed to Newton as a no-bullshit, straight-forward, and mostly stable1 e-mail client that delivered a significantly sized subset of my requirements towards an e-mail client.

And I liked it. It is (or soon will have been) the best e-mail client on iOS that I ever used.

I was hoping that the user base of (according to CloudMagic) 40000 subscribers was giving the developers a solid financial basis for working on the app going forward. But it’s not going to happen.

It’s sad to see this app disappear.


  1. The fact that this needs to be emphasized says everything about the state of iOS e-mail clients. 

Keep It

I’m not exactly busy searching for a replacement of DEVONthink (To Go) on my devices. Sure, I’ve been through some unpleasant issues with DEVONthink’s iCloud sync, ending up with the conclusion that I should stick to the older and more proven sync mechanisms for the moment. But still.

When I became aware of Keep It I wasn’t immediately thrilled, to say the least. Many years ago, I have been using Keep It’s predecessor, Together. At that time, Together was an OK Mac app which never got an even halfway decent iOS companion. Even back then, an app of this category was not acceptable for me without an iOS companion.

Fast forward to today: at some point, I decided to give Keep It a try in the most literal sense of the word: by activating the two-weeks trial period of the subscription required to use Keep It.

I have to say I like the design of the app and how well it integrates with the design language currently favored by Apple. However, the app is not as polished as you’d wish. For example, scrolling through a list of entries is not exactly smooth, even on contemporary hardware.

In contrast to DEVONthink, Keep It does not support different databases or different sync stores. It can only sync between devices using iCloud.

Before diving deeper into features that may distinguish Keep It from e.g. DEVONthink To Go, my primary goal during the trial period was to see how Keep It would hold up in very elementary ways (e.g. store, search, organize) in comparison to DEVONthink To Go and whether it could, in theory, replace DEVONthink for me.

Thankfully, Keep It supports the creation of folders inside the database which was an important feature for me in mirroring my current content of DEVONthink databases in an organized way to Keep It.

On top of moving stuff over, I used Keep It in parallel to DEVONthink, i.e. everything that I’d add to DEVONthink was also added to Keep It in order to compare the friction of working with one or the other app.

To make a long story short, the overall experience of putting my stuff into Keep It wasn’t exactly encouraging:

  • Files that had an extension in DEVONthink were given an additional extension on top of the existing one. For example, a file named file.pdf ended up as file.pdf.pdf.
  • File that did not have an extension were not properly recognized but just declared as having the type “data”.
  • The share sheet was unable to store imports in any other folder than the default import location. Files shared to a different folder simply never appeared in that folder.
  • Sometimes individual files would not sync between devices.
  • After sharing a file to the default import location it was not possible to move the file to a specific folder because the target folder inexplicably did not appear in the list of folders offered by the move action. Outside the move action, the target folder was perfectly visible and had all the expected content.

To summarize, I think I’ll pass and maybe have a look again after a couple of updates down the road.

Things Share Sheet, again

Hey, look at that.


A while ago, I have mentioned that the share sheet implemented by Cultured Code’s Things did not behave the way I would like it to behave. As a benchmark, I triggered the share sheet on Things’ own App Store page.

Today, apropos of nothing, I had a look at how the current version of Things is doing. To my mild surprise, the share sheet has improved.

In particular, the title part is now filled properly. However, the content of the title is repeated word by word at the top of the body part, for whatever reason.

It is hard to see what kind of sense this makes. The duplicate text would have to be removed manually, which can rightfully be called a bummer.

But don’t get me wrong, I appreciate any progress being made.

Instapaper down for over a Month

We look forward to having the same Instapaper service you know and love accessible in Europe in the very near future. Thanks for your patience.

Near future, eh? It‘s been more than a month, FYI.

I can’t believe that it takes Instapaper more than a full month to return to service if they really want to. I was never a fan of the acquisition by Pinterest and it seems that my initial skepticism was warranted.

Now Instapaper is just a small side-product that does not seem to get much attention any longer. I, for one, have given up on waiting for the service to return.

I haven’t finally decided about the replacement for Instapaper. And so my current approach for clutter-free reading stuff later consists of a mixture of using Pinboard in combination with Pinner/Pushpin, and the text extraction function in DEVONthink.