Over a year, the MacStories team tries hundreds of apps. We test them, live with them, heck, prodder and break them, and then we write and talk about them. Overall, thousands of hours of thought and analysis at the macro level seek to answer the question: What does a good app do? There is no single factor or simple formula; If it were, almost all app would achieve greatness. However, after evaluating as many apps as we have, each of us has a refined instinct for standout applications when they come to our radar.
We write about many amazing apps, but each year make up a handful of exceptional. The precise quality that sets an app apart is often more difficult to identify than the app itself. Some are programs that push the limits of Apple OSes to new territory while others are fresh, addressing old issues. In spite of millions of apps on the App Store, each and every application is really inventive and opens up a whole new category of apps.
This year we start something new to celebrate the apps that stand out from the Package with a new feature we call MacStories Selects . For this introductory year, we cover three app categories: Best New App, Best App Update and Best New Game. Along with the top choices for each category we have chosen runners who also stood out from the crowd. Before the turn of the year, we reveal two other components in MacStories Selects also:
- Federico's App of the Year, which will be published as part of his annual Must-Have iOS Apps of 201
- Choosing for our favorite new hardware accessories in 2018.
By creating today's app picker, we only watched titles released in 2018. In addition, we considered for best app update every single stand-alone update regardless of anyone others, as opposed to aggregating updates from all year.
Selects something new for us here on MacStories as we expect to grow over time. We hope you enjoy it. Now, to our choice …
Best New App
Federico: Agenda is not an easy app to understand first. On the surface it seems like a regular notebook – it allows you to create projects for notes that can be tagged and formatted with a Markdown-like plain text syntax. You can attach files and pictures to a note (the app also supports x-revocation url automation to do it from shortcuts), it integrates with keyboard shortcuts on iPad, and it syncs your notes with iCloud over iOS and macOS. At first glance, Agenda looks like a pretty traditional note app, perhaps with fewer bells and whistles than alternatives like Bear, less functional than the power-driven drafts, but more flexible than Apple Notes.
Where Agenda Controlls From The Conventions Of The Many Notebooks For IOS – And Most Users Can Be Confused Initially – In Its Unique Mix Of Notes And Dates. In Agenda, you can schedule notes. Each note can either be assigned a due date or marked as "on the agenda", a special filter that will cause a single note to be listed in a top level of the app. Additionally, Calendar notes can be calendar events: By creating an event for a note, you will not only be able to assign a date to it, but you also get the opportunity to include a link to that note in the event itself, which gives you The ability to easily open the note when the event expires. But why do you want to assign dates to notes, and what makes Agenda so unique that it's our favorite app debut of 2018?
It's exactly where in the app's name: Agenda is a data-focused notebook that makes the genre on the head with a timeline-based approach to memo organization rather than a classic folder-based. Agenda is a new spin on notes, and it takes some time to understand how it fits your workflow, because no other notepad app works like it. While most apps just give you a place to write and in some cases add attachments, which ultimately make you work to give notes an actionable due date, Agenda contains these aspects in a single, integrated, beautifully designed package.
I have used Agenda in different ways in recent months. I record 3-4 podcasts every week, and each show has a unique theme that requires research and planning. With Agenda, I can make summaries of formatted text, add links to them and mark the note as due for day recording so that when I'm on my Mac to record a podcast, the note appears under "Today" Part of the app, ready for me to refer while i speak. Another example: I've created a "Shortcut Ideas" project in Agenda, and have saved notes for different shortcuts I want to work on for MacStories or the club. With Agenda, I can give a due date to a note, and it will appear in my calendar (and in my task management, GoodTask, thanks to its calendar integration) when it's time to build that shortcut. All of this is possible with other note programs, but Agenda removes a crucial step from the process (manually turning a note to a todo) and as such it becomes a seamless way to move projects forward by giving a time and place to each note. If you, like me, organize your big work projects by taking notes for everything, the views "On the agenda" and "Today" of the app will become important companions for your task management.
There are many other useful things and lovely touches in the agenda, as well as date and calendar integration. In the latest version 4.0, the app was supported for attachments, so you can easily mix photos and files with text in a note. The app is pretty and elegant, and it's a pleasure to enter thanks to the inline format controls and external keyboard support. Notes can be reordered in a drag-and-drop project, and you can quickly jump back to notes you have recently worked with thanks to an additional side field on the right. Notes can be labeled, and these additional bits of metadata can be filters to create saved searches for easier access to a subset of notes from the left sidebar. You can add notes to Siri as shortcuts, export text in different formats, and choose between a standard light theme and a beautiful dark one – there is also the option to change the accent colors for the user interface in the app. And I've barely scratched the surface of what you can do with Agenda on iOS, as well as the (also excellent) Mac counterpart.
It's rare to find a recordable app that restores such a crowded market with really useful ideas. It's not gimmicks, let alone one that manages to improve on the foundation with several major updates over a year. But Agenda does everything and for this reason, it deserves to be our favorite new app of 2018.
Best New Apps: Runner-Up
Federico: If you are in home automation and is a fan of Apple's HomeKit platform, there's a good chance that you're not completely satisfied with one aspect of the ecosystem: its barebones watch app, making it almost impossible to quickly trigger certain scenes. HomeRun, the latest creation of HomeKit app develops extraordinary Aaron Pearce, solves this with a simple yet effective solution: a Watch app that has a grid of tappable HomeKit scenes so you can perform them with one click.
HomeRun is one of these programs you wonder how you managed to live without using it for a few days. On iPhone, HomeRun lets you create scenes of scenes that you will later watch on the smaller Watch screen. Scenes are automatically imported from the home application, and each can be assigned a custom color and icon pairing from a selection of hundreds of resources. HomeRuns Scenes contain no text labels, but the combination of colors and descriptive glyphs is enough to identify scenes with a glance and run them. Furthermore, the grid layout is flexible so you can decide to fit up to three buttons on the same line, two larger, or single rectangle.
On Watchen, the HomeRun app starts quickly and the scenes are performed immediately after selecting one. However, with the latest 1.1 update, Pearce has overcome the ability to create customized complications that have the same color and icon previously assigned to a scene on iPhone. With customized complications (which are also supported on the new Infograph faces for Apple Watch Series 4), you get quick access to a particular HomeKit scene as soon as you lift your wrist: Just press the icon and the HomeRun app opens, automatically runs The scene is paired with the complication – no further tapping required. In our experience, this feature has proven to be a great blessing for HomeKit automation – now with just a girl's wrist, changing the colors of your lights, turning on smart plugs or, if you're brave, trigger specific homebridge plugins being simple tasks to perform on Watch without talking to Siri.
HomeRun is the perfect example of an app that makes one thing incredibly good: it makes HomeKit more powerful and enjoyable for Apple Watch users, and it's among our favorite App-debuts by 2018.
Best New Apps: Runner -Up
The Scriptable page came out in September, I've used it to show me custom views of my upcoming reminders and calendar events, for example, or to select a file from their iCloud Drive container and move it somewhere else. I wrote scripts to load a QuickLook preview for a particular document or image, or to select a screenshot from the Photos app, upload it to our CDN and copy the URL to the system clipboard. There is a comprehensive list of native iOS bridges in Scriptable – from notifications to QuickLook and shareware – which gives you the freedom to program your own add-ons to iOS, something I had not seen so well since Pythonista came out in 2012.
But Even better than that, Scriptable can present the production of a script directly in Siri or the shortcuts app thanks to Siri shortcuts in iOS 12. The image you want to remember several times a day? Write a script that retrieves it from a folder in files, give it a Siri statement and preview with the assistant. Would you like to expand Siri with results from a web service that is not supported by Apple? Simply type your own application to contact an API in the background, and Siri will address a custom response after pronouncing a personal expression. And so on dozens of integrations and APIs that you can program in Scriptable and made available throughout the system thanks to shortcuts.
For an app launched three months ago, Scriptable is incredibly powerful and functional and it incorporates a new era of iOS automation where scripting can coexist with visual shortcuts and URL schemas instead of replacing them. Scriptable is a remarkable app debut, and an app to look closely over the next few years.
Best App Update
Ryan: When it comes to software, 2018 was a year for iPad in many respects. The big leaps forward of iOS 11 did a lot to satisfy the wishes of iPad power users, but they in some ways just raised our appetite for more. While the debut of shortcuts this year brought a lot to Apple's tablet platform, there was still a general lack of iPad-focused advances in 2018.
In evaluating third party app updates for the year, there were a lot of top players. But the update that made the most of the MacStories team is one that achieved some apps rarely do: push iPad forward in a meaningful way.
Things 3.6 launched in late May as part of a quick array of strong updates for Cultured Code is popular task management. It was the first of these updates, but just focusing on iPad. And it did so by tapping into the power of the external keyboard.
With many iPad apps, keyboard shortcuts by developers are considered an unnecessary luxury. If they are present at all, they are often very limited. You may be able to speed up some actions with shortcuts, but for too long you will find yourself having to reach out and touch the iPad screen to get something done. However, things are different. More than just a touch of touch input, shortcuts in Ting 3.6 became a true alternative to touch. Our own Federico Viticci did the best:
With Version 3.6, Things has the best implementation of external keyboard support I've ever seen in an iPad app.
On paper, a keyboard-focused update is not the most exciting or most exciting. In fact, before the 3.6-release issue, I had heard that an iPad-focused update was on its way and found myself disappointed first when it turned out to only provide improvements to keyboard navigation. However, after using the app, I quickly discovered how much difference it does when an app offers keyboard shortcuts for some things as opposed to providing complete keyboard control over all .
] When using items for iPad with an external keyboard, you can navigate almost every interface of the app using the arrow keys on the keyboard. At any time when the app is open, pressing the Up or Down arrow key will show a blue highlight box indicating that a task has been selected. From here you can use Enter to open the detail task of a task, with the title, note and checklist fields that anyone can navigate via the arrow keys. tap again to get back to your task list. When a task is highlighted in blue, you can also use ⌘K to highlight the task, ⌘S to schedule the due date, ⌘T to add it to the day view, ⌘E for this evening, ⌘N to create a new task , and on the list goes. The complete list of shortcuts is available here.
In addition to the comprehensive support for keyboard shortcuts, item 3.6 also took the Mac version Type Travel feature to iOS. Type Travel allows you to search the entire app without having to open a search box – just start typing, no matter which part of the app you see and the Search box opens and immediately fill in with the query. Eliminating the need for manual activation of the search field can not seem like a big deal, but in practice it gives a much smoother, frictionless experience. I wish that IOS's own system-overwriting search function worked like this.
Thing 3.6 is a strong example of comprehensive keyboard support that unfortunately does not have any other iPad apps I know. But the potential is clear there. If app-wide keyboard navigation became standard practice on iPad, I have no doubt that it would be transformative to the platform's power users.
Best App Updates: Runner-Up
Ryan: ] It's rare to see a year-old app review the kind of powerful revitalization that Drafts experienced in 2018. It's even less so that it should be in conjunction with a move from a paid business model to a subscription. With the transition from Draft 4 to Draft 5, developer Greg Pierce found success on several levels and thus inspired a new post-app for the app.
One of the exciting new directions taken by Draft 5 was to lean on into the role of a real Markdown editor. Although the app has long been able to be used as a primary Markdown editor, its identity became stronger in the concept of being a place where text only began, not where it would eventually live. That identity was stretched, but thanks to the introduction of new tools to organize your drafts: workspaces and brands. Armed with these additions, Drafts 5 makes creating custom writing environments consisting of only drafts and actions you need for different types of writing work; Tim Nahumck refers to these layouts as modules, and they make the app a valuable tool for a diverse set of needs.
Another important aspect of Drafts' revitalization has been received by Drafts 5's subscription model. Unlike most apps that have subscribed, there seemed to be little public rebel over the change, and unlike most users, they seemed to like to provide continuous support for the app. I think this positive receipt has a lot to do with the way Pierce shared free features from the enabled subscriptions. Much of the app's basic functionality is available in the free version, while features directed at power users – such as action editing, workspaces, and enhanced automation – are limited to Drafts Pro subscribers. I suspect users who make the most of Drafts recognize the value found in the app, so it's happy to pay for what they get.
One last item I want to mark that I think has made Drafts 5 such A success is the app's aggressive development rate. Since version 5 first debuted in April, it has got a very consistent mix of both major updates and bug fixes. The promised Mac version has also come a long way in development, and is now available in beta versions for all Drafts subscribers. The app's strong development rate binds well with users being able to pay for subscriptions because it has been so clear how repeated revenue has allowed Pierce to pour as much time as possible to further develop the app.
In 2018, Drafts was an App Store veteran, yet Drafts 5 was able to bring it to a whole new set of users. If the app continues to receive its current level of development awareness, it seems to have another successful year in 2019.
Best App Updates: Runner-Up
Ryan: Photography works as such an important role for the iPhone, but most of us are still happy with Apple's built-in camera app, rather than getting back to see what the App Store has to offer. Access to Apple's built-in app is a challenge for third-party apps to overcome, despite the clear benefits they can have with manual controls that Apple's camera does not provide. This challenge is why I think Obscura 2 deserves recognition because with the big redesign it took a big step forward to make manual camera controls more elegant and available.
In the middle of Obscura's user interface is the control wheel, which sets all the App settings right at the fingertips. The control wheel fits well with Obscura's minimal design, while each of the controls is easily identified thanks to clear labels and iconography. You navigate through the control wheel by scrolling with horizontal movements, similar to changing port lighting settings in Apple's camera. Each movement on the left or right of the control wheel is accompanied by a satisfactory touch of haptic feedback. This tactile element feels great and helps you to really control what is happening on the screen.
Thanks to the Control Wheel, Obscura is the manual camera app I've felt most comfortable and able to use. Where other camera programs, including Obscura 1, often can not be used for photographic beginners, Obscura 2's design helps me feel authorized to play and learn more about the controls it puts in my hands. Besides, if I do not want to adjust a myriad of controls myself, Obscura's strong set of built-in filters is useful.
Obscura 1 was a good app, but Obscura 2 is a great one and that's why it belongs to this list.
Best App Updates: Runner-Up
Ryan: Since its debut over four years ago, Overcast has consistently earned its position as one of the premier podcasts clients on iOS. The launch of the app was enhanced by innovative audio features like Smart Speed and Voice Boost, but over the years since its debut, Overcast's creator Marco Arment has consistently brought thoughtful reform to the app's interface and features that prevent it from growing outdated or behind its competitors. Cloudy 5 released this autumn as the latest major version of the app, introduces a strong mix of new features and user interface enhancements that make the app better than ever.
Comprehensive Siri shortcuts support is one of the highlights of the update. Cloudy uses iOS 12's new media shortcuts to enable voice management of many aspects of the app, including to skip chapters, turn on Smart Speed or Voice Boost, and of course, the very important feature of starting your queue or another playlist you have made. These options significantly reduce Apple Podcast's advantage in terms of Siri control. Now, the podcast actions you usually want Siri to perform are fully available through custom Siri shortcuts.
Cloudy 5 has also brought major improvements to the Apple Watch app, enabling the advanced Apple Watch playback previously removed from the app due to limits in watchOS. The improved Watch app has also added volume control through the Watch's Digital Crown, another significant low-hanging fruit that watchOS restrictions previously made impossible. Finally, Cloudy 5 made two smaller features that I would never know I needed to add to the app: Specific-Specific Search and Podcast Frequency Details. The former means Overcast can search for an episode title, description and view notes to help you find any older episodes you are looking for. Frequency Details is a handy addition that tells you when new episodes of a show are generally released. I like to work with specific shows in specific time slots in my schedule, so getting the information in front is a nice touch.
On the UI front cloudy 5 brought a redesigned screen with now playback to the app that does things like audio controls and show notes more discovered and close to hand. Haptic feedback was also implemented through the app, a wonderful addition for those with newer iPhones. These enhancements, combined with Siri shortcuts and an upgraded watch app, have made Cloudy 5 one of the strongest updates of the year.
Best New Game
John: Alto's Odyssey succeeds in embracing the limitations of mobile devices and refining all aspects of the endless race genre to create something that exceeds the sum of its parts as well as the predecessor, Alto's Adventure. Many of the elements in the Odyssey have been done before, including by Team Alto even in Adventure. What's different with Odyssey is that it takes what made Alto's Adventure a success – everything from game mechanics to art and sound design – and fine-tune it to form a deeper experience that's more fluid and immersive.
What Team Alto has achieved was not a small achievement. Alto's Adventure already removed the endless running genre of the core and rebuilt it into a beautiful and engaging experience. As Federico explained in his review of Alto's Odyssey in February, the way you book a game like Alto's Adventure on:
you start from "more of the same" approach and make every aspect of the Alto universe more beautiful, more peaceful, more challenging, and ultimately more fun.
In other words, you make the template better.
The first hint you are on for a familiar but different experience are the pictures. The Odyssey opens at dawn with hot air balloons rising over a desert landscape, a setting different from the snowy mountains of adventure that you could imagine. As the game evolves, players are entering for even more goodies. Beyond the desert world of Odysseys full of sand dunes are jungle ruins, streams and rocky outcrops. Combined with day and night settings, rain and beautiful color palettes, the Odyssey artwork makes it the head and shoulders of the vast majority of iOS games.
A similar sophistication is evident in Odyssey's game. Through new mechanics like riding on stone walls, rising from mini tornados, jumping off the top of hot air balloons, the Odyssey has added greater depth to the combinations available to players. They are additionally serving to keep the game interesting for Alto's fans without complicating the gameplay in a way that would turn off newcomers.
With some games is part of the fun, an exciting, stress-inducing nature. Odyssey could not be anymore from that kind of game. Art and games, along with the soothing soundtrack, make Odyssey a meditative experience that at the same time absorbs and calms.
When I first heard that Team Alto was working on a follow-up of Adventure, I was skeptical that they could copy what made the game special, even less top it. However, the Odyssey did much more than just copy a hit formula. The Odyssey is a natural extension of Adventure, a rare sequel based on the success of the predecessor without overloading it too much; It's an artificial understanding of what an iOS game may be.
Best new game: Runner-Up
John: The App Store is full of games with heroes swinging swords on monsters. Grimvalor has the usual elements, but it would be a mistake to write it off more of the same because it is not. Grimvalor, from the Finnish game studio Direlight, is a Dark Souls-inspired adventure game that does more to realize the genre on mobile than any other title in the last memory.
As Grimvalor's hero, players are thrown down in a weakly lit world overrun by monsters. As you go through the game, evil hoards defeat, level up your character and collect items, you'll find yourself regularly chased by powerful enemies. You must decide to run or stand and fight. Of course there is also a battleground, which is very tough to win.
There is much to say that Grimvalor is paid in front. There are no ads to disturb the fun and no waiting periods or other mechanics to tempt you to buy purchases. Instead, players get a deep, engaging experience where the only way to succeed is to try, fail and try again – something that does not seem to make the game an instant classic, but it does in a largely free- play the world.
Unlike many iOS platform players, Grimvalor has excellent controls on the screen. There are buttons to move back and forth, jump, dash and attack, and everything works well on screen. But Grimvalor really shines when you connect it with an MFi controller. Direlight has done a wonderful job that makes the entire Grimvalor user interface navigable with a controller, including the menu system and inventory management. This makes the game much more fun as a retrieved experience played on a large-screen iPad or connected to an external display and speakers where art and sound design is displayed.
Direlight is not ready to polish Grimvalor either. Only today, it launched an update that utilizes the new iPad Pro fullscreen, a few other games have yet implemented. The same update increases the frame price to an amazing 120 frames per second on the new iPad processes for some of the smoothest graphical renderings available in any game. Add it to the ability to swap positions on the display dash and jump buttons, and it is clear that Direlight cares deeply about Grimvalor's audience.
There is much to explore in Grimvalor. Each level comes with unique challenges and wise hidden treasures. It's a design that together with the great artwork keeps the game interesting and fresh when you fight from boss to boss. However, it is the obvious care and attention to detail that went into making Grimvalor which has created an outstanding experience that makes it a joy to play and a rare gem on the App Store.
Well, that's our introductory edition of MacStories Selects. We hope you enjoyed it. To hear more about our choices this year, check out this week's episode of AppStories. In episode 92, Federico and John discuss the selection process and the thinking behind each choice. Also, if you have a category you want us to evaluate for Selects in the future, feel free to contact Federico, John or Ryan. We would love to hear from you.