Category Archives: Software & Apps

A fun and ambitious action game for Smartphones

Bardbarian

(5/5)

Pros: Innovative and surprisingly good control scheme. Fun upgrade paths. Sense of humor.

Cons: Be prepared: there’s an in-game purchase you will want to buy before too long.

Bardbarian is one of the most surprising iOS games I’ve ever played. It’s a good blend of fun,  humor, replay value, and quality construction. A few elements are quite clever and innovative, and the game layers on several levels of game mechanics without ever feeling complicated.

It’s a fast-paced action game requiring joystick-like control to run around, dodge bullets, and shoot enemies. Your main character doesn’t actually fight the enemies, but he’s surrounded by a party of followers who can. As you progress through the game you unlock different options for types of followers. They range from archers to wizards to robot-building engineers, and they have a colorful diversity of talents. By recombining different follower types, you can experiment with a huge number of different playstyles and strategies. This gives the game lots of replay value.

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The game is set of a 2D map which feels about the size of like a football field. You can’t see the entire field at once, only a portion of it as you run around. But there’s a mini-map that shows you some representation of where all the enemies are. You use a thumb on the screen as directional input, joystick-style.

What’s surprising is how well this actually works. I’ve never played a game where you place your thumb on the screen like a joystick, and actually liked the results. But there is something different about the way Barbarian makes it work. Instead of showing you a graphical d-pad and making you press virtual buttons, you just place your thumb anywhere you want on the screen. Slide your thumb to the right from where you put it down, and the character will run right. Slide it to the left from where you put it down, and the character will run left. You can pick up your thumb and move it to another spot on the screen – anywhere on the screen – and start over. A small transluscent circle shows you where you put your thumb down and the spot you’re currently rooted to.

It’s subtle. It’s simple. It works amazingly well. You never have to look down at your thumb basically. You don’t have to hold the phone just-so and keep your thumb in position over some stupid virtual joystick that’s taking up a big chunk of your screen.

The game’s theme is a mashup of medieval combat and heavy-metal rock and roll. Literally, your character runs around with an electric guitar, rocking out guitar licks while his minions do the fighting around him. The longer you play the more “notes” you generate. These are spent on summoning more party members, or on temporary boosts to damage, shield, and running speed.

These fundamentals work really well. You run close to an enemy and your party members start shooting at it. If your party is made up of archers, they’ll have long range and shoot from a far distance. If your party is made up of brawlers, you’ll have to get closer – but they do more damage per shot. There are several kinds of wizards and other creatures in the party member list. But in any one game your party can only be made up of 3 unit types. You have to select your 3 types before you play, and stick with that choice until your next game. If that combo doesn’t work out, you can try another.

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Each party member type has its own upgrade path, which you spend your hard-earned gold to unlock. There are upgrades for your main character too (things like his health and running speed). Last are some upgrades to the environment itself: one upgrade gets some of the folks in the town to keep their shops open and help you fight the bad guys. Another sets the town drunk loose to vomit on the bad guys.

The game has a fun sense of humor. One of the upgrades you can buy is called “body spray” and it allows your party to bunch more closely together. You can expect a few fart jokes and such, but the game overall is witty and enjoyable. The lively rock-and-roll soundtrack rounds it out.

Basically, if you like Tenacious D, you will love Bardbarian.

You might ask why the iPhone version costs a buck but Android is free. Well, almost as soon as you play you’ll be presented with the chance to buy a golden guitar that doubles your gold collection rate. Gold drops from enemies as they are slain, and you need gold to unlock every kind of upgrade in the game. Earning gold 2x as fast will get you through the game with less grinding, especially as you move higher and higher through the upgrades. Most of them get very expensive at their higher levels.

This “golden guitar” costs real money. They’ve experimented a bit with the price but last I saw it was $2 on iPhone and $3 on Android. So either way, if you buy this extremely useful item, you will enjoy the game more, and it will wind up costing you a total of three dollars no matter what kind of phone you play it on. I’m not sure why they split the price up differently on iOS. I guess they’re experimenting to find the optimal way to make money with the game.

I recommend this game if you like the sound of anything you’ve heard. It’s well put together. Attention to detail is strong. Quality is good. I’ve had no crashes and very few glitches. I really never thought I would be able to play a live-action joystick game like this on my iPhone but it works amazingly well. I’ve played for many many hours already. I hope you enjoy the game as much as I have.

Here’s a trailer showing some actual gameplay.

H&R Block at Home Premium 2013 – makes doing taxes tolerable

H&R Block At Home Premium Edition 2013

 

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Purchase at Amazon

(5/5)

Pros: Easy to install, easy to use, accurate results

Cons: Doesn’t offer me a cup of coffee, like my accountant did

It’s that time of year – time to worry about taxes.

Years ago I used to gather all my papers, and go visit an accountant.  He would sit across the desk from me, ask me a zillion questions, and write answers directly on tax forms as I answered him.

Nowadays, I do my own taxes, using an at-home software.  For years, I have turned to H&R Block to provide this software.  H&R Block has several versions of their product including a free one.  The differences: how much support you’ll get, and how much “expert advice” it will provide.  In addition, you can choose to purchase state-tax software, or not.  In my case, since I run my own business, I choose their H&R Block Premium edition, which contains extra support in that area.

You can purchase the DVD, or simply download it.  In all cases, installation is truly a snap.  You normally don’t need to answer more than one or two initial questions, then hit “enter” and “I agree” a couple times.  If you let the installation install a desktop icon, then starting the software couldn’t be any easier – just click it.  Whenever you go into it, the system will offer to check for updates.  I can’t stress enough – don’t skip this step!  If there are updates out there, trust me, you want them.  You always want the system to be working with the most accurate, up-to-date laws and information, right?  So, take the extra two minutes and let it do its thing!

So what does the software do?  Well, it takes on the role of your accountant.  It – basically – asks you a zillion questions and fills out your forms as you go.  The difference is that you can opt not to even see the forms.  I use this mode.  I don’t need to see the actual forms as I go.  Just ask me questions, and I’ll answer them.  Whatever you do with the answers, you can do behind-the-scenes, as far as I’m concerned!

If this is the first time using the software you’ll have to provide a lot of information.  However, if you used the software previously the system offers to get a lot of the information from your previous year.  That’s a tremendous time-saver.  I let it bring in practically everything from last year, then I only need to edit things that have changed.  But let’s face it – if you haven’t moved, changed jobs, or made major lifestyle changes since last year, a lot of the information will be the same.  Sure, the dollar amounts will change each year, but I appreciate saving all the typing time.

The system will also offer to bring in information from other software.  So if you use Quicken or other financial system, it can bring info from there, as well.

The Q&A sessions continue along, working in major sections.  And within major sections are sub-sections.  So, “Income” is a major section.  Within that section, you’ll have “1099”, “W2”, “Royalties”, “Capital Gains”, “Interest”, etc.  At the start of each major section, you can check off which sub-sections you want the system to take you through.  So, if you don’t have W2 income, just have it skip that section.

The system proceeds linearly through all sections of the return.  However you don’t have to feel “locked-in”.  At any point, you can use the “Go-to” button.  This lets you hop around to your heart’s content.  You can go back and re-visit a previous section.  Or, jump ahead if you’re in the mood to work on charitable donations right this minute.  You can also toggle back and forth between the interview screens and the forms.  You could even modify the data in the forms, if you are so inclined.  For instance, if you realize you made a mistake several screens back, you might find it easier to make the change right in the form, rather than find that part of the interview again.  Don’t worry, changing the form actually changes your answer in the interview, so the two are always in sync.

The system also includes a handy calculator and the ability to create itemized lists.  These are handy tools.  For instance, when it comes to medical expenses, you can enter all of your receipts into an itemized list, and it’ll do the math for you.  Furthermore, while the list doesn’t become part of your return, it says in the system – think of it as an “attachment” – and provides a handy reference later on.

The system auto-saves every 10 minutes.  And you can exit the software and resume as many times as you want. 

Have questions as you’re going along?  Don’t quite understand what’s being asked?  Or, simply unsure of the correct answer?  There are plenty of ways to get help.  There are plenty of links on the side of the screen that point you toward informative articles on the subject.  Also, there are times where the acceptable answers are “Yes”, “No” and “Not Sure”.   If you answer “Not Sure” the system will ask you a series of extra questions to help you figure out if you really need a “Yes” or a “No”.  There are other places where you can choose “Quick Entry” or “Guided Entry”.  Quick entry is great if you’ve entered this type of information before and you know exactly what you’re doing.  Guided entry will ask far more detailed questions to help you along, in areas where you’re unclear.  Finally, if you’re still unsure, give H&R Block a call or send them an email.  Depending on which version of the software you purchased, you have access to a minimum number of free support calls; after the minimum, charges apply.

The entire time you’re working on the return, you’ll get to see a big number on the top right of your screen.  This is a positive number if – so far – you can expect a return.  Or, it’s a negative number if – so far – you can expect to have to pay.  Obviously, I prefer to see a nice big positive number up there.  But in any case, it’s nice to know exactly where I stand at any given point.  It’s also sometimes interesting to watch how the figure changes as a result of any given entry.

When you’re all finished, the system analyzes your return and gives you some advice.  It alerts you to any “questionable” entries.  It also offers advice for reducing your taxes going forward.  Finally, it guides you through the submission process – whether you choose a paper return or electronic.

Finally, heaven forbid you get audited – H&R Block will provide you “worry-free audit support”.  Thankfully, I have not needed this, so I have no idea what it entails or whether it’s truly worry-free or not.  I tend to doubt that.

I’ve used this system for years, and really have no complaints.  No, doing taxes isn’t “fun” but the system makes it tolerable.  Is it accurate?  I believe so.  I’ve never had reason to question it.  The only thing I will caution: The system isn’t “really” your accountant.  So, if you make a silly mistake, a typo, or just a bone-headed response, the system might not catch it the way your accountant might.  It’s a great idea to have more than one set of eyes on the process, or to double-check your final return for “reasonableness” afterwards.

At around $40 for the Premium version (less for other versions) I don’t see where you can go wrong.  If you’re looking for at-home tax software, I recommend H&R Block.

 

 

 

 

Clear List, Clear Mind, Clear Life

Clear

An iOS todo app from RealMacSoftware

FREE for 24 hours, ending 3/8/2024 – $4.99 after that

(5/5)

Pros: Simple, uncluttered UI that just works.

Cons: Wish I could share a list with my wife.

Clear is a todo list app for iPhones and other iOS devices. I have been using it for over a year and I love it. As part of a special promotion it is FREE until Saturday so I wanted to let everyone know about it.

Clear made a lot of news when it launched because it was one of the earlier apps to rely entirely on gestures for control. When you launch it you don’t see any buttons or toolbars. Just a minimalist interface that takes you straight in to your todo lists.

Here’s what a list looks like. Notice there are no checkboxes or handles or buttons whatsoever. Just simple color coding from “hot” for high-priority to “cool” for low priority.

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What do you do from there?

Pull down to create a new item.

Swipe left to mark an item complete.

Swipe right to delete an item from the list.

Press and hold on an item, then drag it to re-prioritize your list.

Pinch the screen to “zoom out” from a todo list and view all your todo lists together.

That’s pretty much it. It emphasizes simplicity over bells and whistles. I have used it to track my nagging little tasks that I have to find time to get around to. I have also used it for big projects like moving house, where there are a zillion things to do and they’ve gotta get done.

My sole wish is to be able to share a todo list with anyone. My wife and I use Zenbe lists for our shared task lists, because two different users can modify the same list with Zenbe. But I’d much rather use Clear – everything else about it is superior.

Clear is free today because they basically screwed up. They wanted to release a paid upgrade version of their app. So they tried releasing a second app called Clear+ but owners of Clear we’re outraged an they back pedaled. Now there is just Clear again but unfortunately the few people who DID buy Clear+ have no good way to get Clear, because Apple does not offer a way to migrate users between apps. SO, long story short, RealMacSoftware is making Clear free for a short time so everyone can migrate over and they can get on with their lives.

You’re the real winner here because you too can get Clear for free whether you’ve owned it before or not.

But don’t wait! This free period is only 24 hours. On Saturday March 8th Clear will return to its usual price of $4.99. If you miss the free period, don’t worry. It’s definitely worth five bucks.

Someone Actually Did Something Interesting with a Weather App

Dark Sky

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$3.99 at the iTunes App Store

(5/5)

Pros: Totally re-imagination of the weather forecast app. Beautiful UI and very precise info.

Cons: Doesn’t make it easy to track the weather through multiple locations.

So your weather app says it’s going to rain today. Well, what time is it going to rain, and for how long? How hard is it going to rain? Other weather apps don’t tell you this stuff, but Dark Sky does. As the name suggests, it’s really useful when the clouds gather and you know bad weather is coming.

It uses an intuitive timeline UI to show you the next hour and how much rain you can expect, minute by minute. Swipe to the right and you get something similar for the next 24 hours. It does a great job of helping you understand what temperature and precipitation to expect at what times throughout the day. 

This really is revolutionary. Yahoo weather tells you it’s going to rain tomorrow. Okay. But if it’s only going to rain from 1-5AM, then you don’t really need to take your umbrella to work, do you? Dark Sky has taken the precision approach, and combined it with a wonderfully intuitive UI that is mostly controlled through gestures. The result is fantastic and has been worth the 4 bucks in my humble opinion.

Swipe right all the way and you get the 7-day forecast. No 10-day is available, but 10 day forecasts aren’t usually that accurate anyway.

If you swipe all the way left you’ll get a visual animation showing the precipitation radar graphs over the last 10 days. You can see the clouds sweeping over the ocean toward your location, and the animation ends at NOW so you get a sense of being brought up to the moment. A temperature graph is available as well.

Weather talk is as old as the hills, but Dark Sky manages to cast new light on it with their innovative UI and focus on detail. A full 5-star bravo and highest recommendation from me.

Available for iOS only.