Words with Friends is Mobile Gaming Perfection

Saturday night. Relaxing at a friend’s house. Dinner is over, and we are all sitting around the dining table. The room is strangely quiet. Everyone at the table has a look of intense concentration, and the only sounds are the occasional shrills and pings produced by our various laptops and smartphones.

No, this isn’t a strange vision of a scary post-social-skills future. It was just last week – on the Saturday we all finally discovered the phenomenon that is Words With Friends.

Words With Friends is an online word game from Zynga, available for iOS, Android and Facebook. It’s basically Scrabble, albeit with the bonus squares slightly rearranged. It’s been around a while, but seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity.

For anyone who has lived in a cave since 1938 when Scrabble was invented, the game takes place on a 15 x 15 square board. Each player is given seven letters, which they must place on the board to create a word. Each letter is allocated a certain number of points – a single point for “easy” letters such as “A” and “E,” and up to 10 points for the tricky ones like “Z” and “Q.”

Words With Friends on Facebook
Words With Friends on Facebook

Extra points are given if words are played over special squares such as “double word score” or “triple letter score.” Players take it in turns to lay words on the board until the entire pool of letters is used up, and the player with the highest score wins the game.

Words With Friends is exactly the same…but online. Players invite friends, usually via Facebook, and can play multiple games at the same time. Within an hour of discovering the game, we found that many of our friends were already playing, and each of us soon had five or six games on the go at once.

There are no time limits. For those that only log on occasionally, a game of Words With Friends can be something akin to postal chess, with only a few moves happening each day. For people who spend their lives glued to their iPhones and Facebook pages, playing Words With Friends can be both an enjoyable quick-fire challenge and something akin to a fun full-time job!

The beauty of Words With Friends is that it really is the perfect mobile game. The iPod and Android apps can consume long train journeys with ease, but also provide perfect gaming fodder for two-minute waits in supermarket queues.

Words with Friends App
Words with Friends App

The game is supported by advertising. In the case of the Facebook game, this involves looking at an ad for 5 seconds in between moves – this can quickly become tiresome. On the iOS app, the ads appear but can be skipped instantly. For those that want to play a lot (probably anyone with a few Facebook friends willing to get involved) the ads can be disabled for a small fee with the purchase of the full game.

Most people playing in our group have paid the money – which goes to prove that this freemium payment model works for compelling games. Who can begrudge a few dollars for something that provides hours of enjoyment at home, on the train, and even queuing at the airport.

The best thing of all about Words With Friends is that it isn’t simply mindless entertainment. If something’s going to keep you glued to your iPhone screen, isn’t it best that it’s something that focuses the mind and increases the vocabulary?

This point seems to be the key to the game’s popularity. All it really consists of is Scrabble, turn based online gaming (that must have been pretty easy to put together), and a bit of brain training. Yet somehow it ends up being far more than the sum of its parts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I somehow need to get more than forty points with four As, two Hs and a Q.

Apple’s Natural Scrolling Feature Catches On

Apple’s introduction of “natural scrolling” with OS X Lion was a controversial move. Apple effectively decided that computer users had for years been scrolling the wrong way around. They changed things so that, by default, OS X Lion users would “push” content up to move it up the screen, and “pull” it down to move it downwards – the same way that everyone scrolls on popular iOS devices.

It’s hard to argue with the logic, but Apple clearly realised that some people would find it hard to change a lifelong habit. They presented Lion users with the option to change things back to the old way via OS X’s System Preferences.

I have to admit that I am of those stubborn old-fashioned users. I gave it a day, but having scrolled the traditional way for near-on twenty years, I was quite happy with the way things were.

The other day I was surfing the Web on my iPhone and I remembered that I could reconfigure my Mac to scroll in the same way. I changed it to “natural” for a while, but, once again, I struggled to get used to the change – even though it does feel perfectly natural on my iPhone. It wasn’t long before I again reverted back to the “unnatural” configuration.

This got me thinking. I wondered whether natural scrolling on a Mac had caught on with the masses – so I made it my business to find out.

Apple's Natural Scrolling
Apple's Natural Scrolling

I asked the question on a popular Mac forum and collated the results.

From my mini survey, I ascertained that while most people acknowledged that there had been a learning curve, 71% of the responders now use natural scrolling on their Macs. It’s perhaps worth adjusting the figure downwards slightly as Mac forum members are likely to be enthusiasts, but even with this adjustment, the indication is that people have largely taken to Apple’s new way of doing things.

The people not adapting to natural scrolling all gave similar reasons. Some simply preferred the old-fashioned way, and others commented that while the natural scrolling feels natural on a track pad, it feels wrong with a mouse wheel. Others (and I count myself in this camp) also use Windows computers regularly, and have difficulties switching back and forth.

The results of this (admittedly rather small) survey seem to suggest that Apple got it right with natural scrolling, and proves that Mac users aren’t resistant to significant change. I, however, will be sticking with the way things were. I’m old school.

[poll id=”11″]

Is Apple Turning OS X into iOS?

Last week saw Apple announcing the arrival of the latest Mac OS X revision, Mountain Lion, which will be released later this year.

Apple’s website clearly states that Mountain Lion will have “all new features, inspired by the iPad.” These include the Game Center, Notification Center, and system-wide Twitter integration that already exists on iDevices.

A quick glance at the Apple forums reveals that this announcement has polarized Mac users, with some techies and power users rather vocal regarding the fact they don’t want to see their beloved OS X morphing further into iOS.

The iOS-ification of OS X began with OS X Lion, with its iPhone-like LaunchPad and natural scrolling. The thing is, quite a lot of long-term Apple users still strongly dislike Lion, feeling that is represents a consumer-focused dumbing down of a powerful operating system.

The incredible success of the iPhone and iPad has enticed many people into the world of Apple products for the first time. It makes sense that Apple would love to see some of the thousands who have swapped their Nokias and Motorolas for iPhones also swap their Windows PCs for MacBooks and iMacs. Making the operating system on these machines closely resemble the iOS that these people already know and love is a logical thing to do to hook them in.

OS X Mountain Lion
OS X Mountain Lion

Meanwhile though, some of the Apple hardcore (who have been paying premium prices for Apple kit since people had Sony Walkmans instead of iPods) are getting frustrated with what appears to be Apple’s focus on the mainstream market at the expense of the hardcore. A similar reaction was seen amongst serious Nintendo fans when, in the middle of its lifecycle, the Wii became a platform for casual games like Just Dance rather than deep gaming experiences.

Despite the vociferousness of the doubters, the increasing iOS-like feel to OS X doesn’t actually prevent anyone from carrying out any specific task on a Mac. However, it would be hard to argue that OS X Lion is as lean and slick as its refined predecessor, Snow Leopard. Shiny, user-friendly features add bloat to an operating system. It’s unlikely that writers and graphic designers want a Game Centre – they want a computer that is as fast as it can possibly be – and they don’t want Apple hiding the filesystem by default either.

The sense of anticipation that Apple manage to cultivate with their secrecy regarding new developments is this time leading some Apple fans to get a little twitchy about the future. Dropping the “Mac” from OS X is even leading some to speculate that the MacBook Pro line will cease to exist.

OS X Mountain Lion Will Drop the

For some, Apple announcing Mountain Lion when they are not perceived to have “fixed” Lion yet is a serious blow. Many users share concerns about Lion’s overall speed and stability, and dislike changes in functionality related to Spaces and Mission Control. Apple could do much to silence the doubters by putting some more work into these widely discussed issues – but the announcement of Mountain Lion, to some, seems like final confirmation that Apple intend to stick to their guns with regard to the direction the operating system is taking.

Ultimately all companies need to make money. The worst case scenario for the dissatisfied power users is that Apple have simply decided that hooking in the iPhone-loving consumers at the expense of the techies and the designers will make them more profit. The fact that Apple have seemingly neglected to update the Mac Pro line in some time only serves to add fuel to this fire.

As ever, no one will know what’s in store until Apple’s next huge announcement. Apple have been riding an unparalleled wave of success of late, but history tells us that no company is immune to an unexpected backlash. With some parties already considering Lion to be Apple’s Vista moment, what happens next could lead some militant Mac fanboys in the direction of Windows 8. It’s certainly an interesting time.

WriteRoom Brings Distraction-free Writing to Mac OS X

I write for a living. While I don’t suffer writers block too often, I do have one major problem that affects my productivity and reduces my output – distraction.

I love my MacBook Pro. I’m just a few clicks away from 16,000 songs, and all day long various applications ping, click and bing, alerting me to new Facebook photos, emails from friends and comments on my blogs. Entertaining though all this is, it’s not exactly conducive to sitting down and getting my articles written.

Enter WriteRoom, a Mac application designed to take away all these distractions and allow me to concentrate on what actually matters – getting my work done.

WriteRoom is basically a text editor intended to run in full screen mode. Nothing is shown apart from the text. If I move my cursor a word count pops up in the bottom-left of the screen – it’s all I want, and all I need.

WriteRoom for Mac
WriteRoom for Mac

There is actually more power hidden away than that. It is possible to configure the program to display rich text instead of simply words, but that, to me, is against what I am trying to achieve.

I’ve quickly settled into a completely new writing workflow, with WriteRoom at the center of it. I open the program, switch to full screen and type. As there is no active spelling and grammar checking, I’m not distracted by errors that disturb my flow. Rather than editing as I go, I copy and paste the whole lot into Word at the end, and do one big proofreading and formatting exercise.

Given that I always did this at the end anyway, I am saving a lot of time. I realize now that I was going back and correcting errors on the fly because Word’s red and green error lines were breaking my concentration. As a result, my articles are now getting written much quicker.

WriteRoom is highly customizable. Your editing window can have any background and text color you like. I have simply gone for green on a black background, which is both easy on my eyes, and lets me pretend I’m using a vintage Amstrad PCW word-processer – which feels oddly compelling on state of the art Mac!

WriteRoom is fully compliant with OS X Lion’s resume / save features – useful to some I’m sure, but not relevant to me as I always move text into Word for further editing. This is one way in which I could suggest a small improvement – a shortcut button to fire the text directly into Word or Pages would further speed up my workflow.

Those who do wish to save directly from the program can do so in text format only – or export straight to PDF.

Another handy feature is the option of logging work sessions to a spreadsheet – useful to track how long articles are taking.

The simple things are the most important – the things that actually affect how I work. Switching to full screen mode requires a shortcut of CTRL+SHIFT+F. To get back to the OS X desktop, you have to repeat this combination – pressing “Esc” does nothing. Now this may seem like a small thing, but when I have used Word’s full screen mode, the temptation to quickly press “Esc” when Mail “bings” the arrival of a new message is too much to resist.

This and the totally distraction free typing window are what make this app essential – it genuinely makes me better at my work – and exactly what the best apps should do. For me, it’s worth every penny of its $10 price tag.

Make your Mac More Like Windows 7 with HyperDock

I’m a Mac, but I used to be a PC.

(Just in case you haven’t seen them, I am referring to the popular series of TV adverts comparing the Apple and Microsoft ways of doing things.)

This is an app review, so it’s not the place for a Mac vs. Windows debate. For the sake of context however, I should say that after switching and enduring a sharp learning curve, I personally came to appreciate and prefer the Mac OS X way of doing things.

Little niggles remained, however. In the course of my working day, I often have many documents open at one time. Windows 7 introduced a great preview feature that shows all of the files open in an application when you hover the mouse over its taskbar icon. Earlier versions of Windows had opened each file in a separate instance of the application, so even without the Windows 7 preview, it was still easy to quickly switch between several different Word documents.

On my Mac, I became frustrated with having to go to the “Window” menu or cycle through windows in an application to quickly move between open documents. I also missed Window 7’s desktop snapping features, particularly the ability to instantly make one window take up exactly half of the screen.

Enter HyperDock, an app that appears to have been specifically designed to add these features to Mac OS X.

Hyperdock for OS X
Hyperdock for OS X

On the evening that I first investigated HyperDock, I was put off by the price. £6.99 ($11 USD) seemed like an awful lot to pay for some OS tweaks, despite a host of 5-star App Store reviews. I put it to the back of my mind. By lunchtime the following day, I realised that I had needed to use the cumbersome way to switch between documents at least ten times. I swallowed the cost and downloaded the app.

Though it’s probably a little histrionic to say that HyperDock has changed my life, it has certainly made it less frustrating. Windows 7’s window preview was a great feature from Microsoft. HyperDock basically provides OS X with the same, but better. The app lets you change the preview size, the animation, the behavior – and even adds some cool extra features such as advanced previews for iTunes and iCal.

HyperDock gives me the window snapping features too. I can now drag a window off to the side to make it take up half the screen – perfect for comparing documents, or using one to refer too while writing. It’s the perfect example of a feature you didn’t know you needed until you had it – and after Windows 7, I was missing it.

To come down firmly on one side of the Windows vs. OS X debate is somewhat missing the point. There are always going to be things that one OS does better than the other. Utilities like HyperDock give you the best of both worlds, and what I like best about this app is that it works seamlessly, without the flaky unpredictability that I associate with Windows UI enhancements that I have tried in the past. It’s turned out to be worth every penny.