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Review: Panes for iPad (Or the Occasional Pains of Developing for the App Store)

 

After a lengthy streak as a hater through the 90s, I have been a big Apple fan for several years now, going back before the release of the iPhone. This only increased when the iPhone arrived, and grew even more as the App Store came along a year later and began to mature. As any hardcore iOS user knows, the App Store is the true star of the show. Due to the streamlined nature of iOS, it’s the apps that make the platform what it is.

Thankfully, despite being surpassed by Android in terms of pure market share numbers, Apple’s iOS has maintained a surprisingly substantial advantage when it comes to app-generated profits, and also continues to hold onto its role as the primary development platform for the vast majority of major developers, even for cross-platform releases. I know that the recent releases of Instagram and Instapaper have Android fans crowing, but let us remember where they came from, and why. The top apps still start with, and lead with iOS. It’s still where the money and eyeballs are.

Despite their “App Advantages,” I think we all know that Apple certainly isn’t perfect. There have been plenty of instances over the last four years where Apple has stepped in it for all the world to see when it comes to the rules and policies of the App Store. Sometimes it is over seemingly arbitrary rules, and even more often, it seems like Apple is just making them up as they go along. Of course, since they were the first to do a baked-in mobile app experience in a big way, they probably were forced to make a certain number of decisions on the fly. No matter what the reasons for the decisions are, when a company like Apple makes an unsure move, it makes for big, often sensationalized, news.

While some of Apple’s actions are justifiable, there are certain things that Apple does with the App Store that not even the staunchest iOS fanboy should be ok with. I don’t mind the security, the filtering of porn and lewd material, the enforcement of certain standards, or even Apple’s insistence on making developers use their in-app payment system to preserve their revenue stream. The problem I have is with the often arbitrary rules that inhibit the creativity of developers who are playing by the rules in all other respects.

The example I have come across lately that irritates me the most is Apple’s insistence on keeping iOS a single window experience, even on the larger screen iPad. It’s one thing to slam the door on widgets for the Springboard, but it’s quite another to not allow their use within apps. There are several very creative apps that I have tried over the last year, such as Blogsy, Slingnote, Tapose, and most recently, Panes, where the devs have had to jump through hoops to deliver their fresh, creative vision, while still toeing Apple’s line.

Panes, from former webOS developer Inglorious Apps, arrived in the App Store a few months ago, after HP banished webOS to open-source purgatory. However, my introduction to this app, or at least it’s inspiration, came last summer after I got my hands on one of those famous fire-sale HP Touchpads. The webOS version of this app is called Glimpse, and as soon as I got it, I was totally hooked. The first thing I did after trying it out was write the developer and ask if he was considering porting the app over to iOS.

So what made Glimpse stand out so much? Browser + Widgets = Awesomeness. I am definitely not a fan of widgets in the Android home screen sense. I’ve tried them, and the content-focused widgets have always felt like cluttered, clumsy, misshapen info fountains spewing forth mismatched data to me. I much prefer a minimalist and more uniform design, and widgets just don’t fit that aesthetic very well. Now Windows Phone Live Tiles, that’s a little different story, but I digress.

Glimpse’s widgets, however, are a different animal entirely. These are the previously mentioned in-app widgets that Apple inexplicably has a problem with. They don’t all look exactly the same, but they do have a consistent style and feel, and operate in much the same way. Glimpse gives webOS users a main window, which is usually occupied by a web browser, combined with up to 4 additional panes on the left side of the screen. These panes can be set to display things such as your Facebook account, Twitter feed, Google Reader, RSS, Weather, a calculator and more. The app allows you to customize these windows and mix, match, and switch widgets on the fly to your liking. It makes browsing and keeping up to date on news and your social outlets a snap.

Fast forward a little bit and we have the introduction of Panes in the App Store. As soon as I heard about it, I immediately downloaded it and was, well, a little confused. Thanks to Apples restrictive App Store regulations, it didn’t look anything like the Glimpse app that I had used and grown to love on the Touchpad.

 

Taking the time to go back and read the developer’s notes on the Panes App Store page, I saw where the developer explained the situation. It seems that his original version, which included multiple windows and widgets on the screen at the same time just like Glimpse, was rejected by Apple. Twice.

As you can see, the stock version of Panes has all the same widgets that I used in Glimpse. However, since Apple wouldn’t allow a multi-windowed interface, this version of the app isn’t much more than a watered-down app switcher. After playing with the stock version of Panes a little bit, I found cycling between its widgets to be an inferior experience to using the full-fledged apps themselves. It was actually faster to switch between them using the iPad’s multitasking gestures. So, I filed it away into a folder and didn’t use it much for a while. I still didn’t regret my purchase despite this disappointment. I figured that I was supporting a developer who was trying to innovate and push iOS forward, and I hoped that he would eventually find a way around Apple’s imposed limitations.

Fast forward to a month ago, when quite by accident, I happened upon a review of Panes on another site. I was quite surprised when I saw one of the pictures in the review, as it showed Panes with a multi-window interface just like Glimpse. I immediately went to the App Store and looked at the app’s page, but did not see anything there about an update to the interface. However, as I read further in the review, I saw that users were able to get an unlock code by e-mailing the developer. This code unlocked what he called the “Directors Cut” of the app. I sent off an email late in the evening, and I had the code from Inglourious Apps before midnight. Impressive. All I can say, is that I wish I had known this a lot sooner! Thankfully, this code and complete instructions now appear on the App Store page for Panes, so there should be fewer confused customers in the future.

So, what is the REAL version of Panes like? In a word, awesome. If it had a little bit more functionality, it would probably replace Safari for me as my main iPad browser. Let’s take a little deeper look at what Apple evidently doesn’t want you to see or use.

Right off the bat you can see the stark contrast between the stock version of Panes and the directors cut. Where the original version is nothing more than a toggle between mini-versions of several apps, the directors cut brings a very rich and customizable experience to the table. The multi-window interface, the widgets, the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen, it’s all here. Let’s take a tour and get a feel for exactly what the director’s cut of Panes can do.

No matter which version of Panes you are using, you have the same widgets available to use. Here’s a quick rundown of what each brings to the table.

Calculator- A generic calculator with basic math functions, plus square root and percent.

Calendar- This widget doesn’t have any appointment viewing capability, but does give you the ability to set new appointments, with locations and reminders, that will be added to your iPad’s default Calendar.

Clock- Just a basic analog or digital clock. It can display a variety of world times, as well.

Convertor- A very handy unit convertor that handles length, mass, volume, area, temperature, and currency.

Facebook- A slick little widget that gives you access to both your feed and your wall, and allows you to post status updates. Unfortunately, while I was able to comment or like posts with photos, I was not able to comment on my friends’ status posts. Hopefully this will be straightened out in a future update.

Google Reader- Allows you to look at all of your unread items, look at individual feeds, and mark everything as read with a single tap.

Notepad- A very basic yellow notepad for plain text typing. You can clear the contents of the page, or share your note via Email, Facebook, or Twitter.

Pix- This is a picture search engine that allows you to search Bing, Google, Flickr, Picasa, and Photobucket for images.

Pocket (Formerly Read It Later)- This widget provides you with a list of your articles or sites that you have stored to read later. You can also search your articles and manually add new ones. Even better, Inglorious Apps has baked Pocket integration directly into its web browser widget. Thanks to this, it is very easy to add articles that you come across while browsing the web in Panes.

RSS- This looks very much like the Google Reader widget, but gives you a few different options. First of all, it comes pre-loaded with some default news options from Yahoo and others. Also, you can add new feeds directly in the widget.

Simplenote- A great choice for a widget. The simple text format makes it a perfect fit here for taking quick notes that are synced to the cloud, without having to tie up the browser window. The widget allows you to browse your notes, search them, sort them by tags, and also create new notes.

Stocks- A simple stock viewer that shows closing prince and change. By tapping on the stock symbol, you get a nice daily breakdown with more details, as well.

Stopwatch- The big green and red start and stop buttons on this widget do make it by far, the easiest to use in the bunch.

Tasks- A basic task editor, complete with due dates and priorities. Unfortunately, it does not sync to any cloud service.

Twitter- This widget is my favorite, as it is loaded with features. You can access multiple Twitter accounts, and look at your feed, mentions, direct messages, your own tweets, your favorites, as well as search. All of these views can be accessed via either a dropdown, or by just swiping left or right in the widget’s window. And, of course, you can send new tweets. All in all, this one is just about perfect.

Weather- The weather information, which is provided by worldweatheronline.com, seems to be accurate for my area, but there’s not really much to this widget. You get current conditions, and then a five day forecast. No radar or anything fancy here.

Web- Inglorious Apps has made a very competent WebKit browser here. It displays pages fast, and the controls are clean and easy to use. Unfortunately, until there is a more organized bookmark system, Panes will not be able to replace Safari for many users. Also, I am curious why you can’t open additional instances of the browser in other widget windows in Panes. Hopefully these features will arrive in the later updates.

YouTube- This widget is a great search utility for video content on the world’s greatest platform for video sharing. Once you have found what you are looking for, you can blow it up full screen, copy the link to the clipboard, or even use AirPlay to show the video on a bigger screen with an Apple TV attached.

As you can see, there is a lot to like here. Inglorious Apps did a great job of covering most of what you will need on a regular basis. I do have a few requests for features and services that aren’t here, like Instapaper, which is a no brainer to go next to Pocket, and Evernote, which might be tougher to pull off, but does have open APIs. Also, for those who want tasks that are synced to the cloud, Toodledo might be a good choice, as well.

I would also like to see some additional functionality included in future versions of the Web widget. To become a true replacement for Safari, it definitely needs a beefed up organization system for bookmarks. Thankfully, when I corresponded with the developer about my requests, he mentioned that Instapaper, enhanced bookmarks, and even tabbed browsing in the Web widget are all on the future roadmap. He also made a point to say that user requests and feedback will always drive that roadmap, so if you have feature suggestions, be sure to let him know.

Next up on the Panes feature parade is the one that really sets it apart from every other iOS app I have tried- Views.

Tapping the three-dot ellipses in the bottom right corner of the screen brings up the options available in Settings, where Views is the first choice.

Tapping this selection brings up a small layout graphic showing the five possible window positions available in Panes. To enable a window, just tap the corresponding picture and it will appear in position on the screen. Then, you can tap on the label at the bottom of the window to choose the widget that you want to be displayed there.

This system is fast and intuitive, so changing your screen layout or displayed widgets is no trouble at all, which is crucial for an app like Panes.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Panes will scale your windows dynamically, depending on how many you have open. For example, you can turn on the top or bottom left windows alone, and they will automatically fill the left quarter of the screen.

This is my preferred setup for the app, as it gives me the maximum amount of viewing space for both the browser, and my chosen widget.

As you continue to add additional windows, you have more information or capability at your fingertips, but you will obviously have with less room to work with. Some of the widgets, such as the Calculator and Calendar, are perfectly suited to the half screen window size. Others, such as Twitter, Facebook, RSS, Google Reader, are useable at half size, but are definitely more useful in a full-screen window. It’s a tradeoff, either way, but I love the fact that Inglorious Apps gives the user the choice of how much to display one the screen at once.

Speaking of room, while most would probably choose to use Panes in landscape mode to maximize the lateral space for extra windows, the app does work in portrait orientation, as well.

However, space for the browser gets pretty limited if you have more than two windows open. Thankfully, Inglorious Apps brought along a handy little snippet of UI from webOS, which is available in both portrait and landscape, to help users make the most of the screen real estate when they need it.

The three horizontal lines at the bottom of each screen section mark a slide point. If you touch that spot and drag to the left, that window will slide over and cover whatever is next to it.

This feature is available in several apps for the Touchpad, such as the native email and Facebook apps, and is both intuitive and very useful. The closest iOS equivalent to that I can think of is the official Twitter app for the iPad, which works in much the same way. So, just like the Twitter app, Panes allows you to slide your browser window over when you need more space for something you are looking at, and then put it right back when you are done. The upside of this feature is that it keeps you from having to turn windows on and off to make extra room, which would take a lot more time and effort.

The window views and widgets in Panes are mostly a WYSIWYG affair, but there are a few key settings available under the Preferences tab to help you customize your experience. First of all, you can choose how to follow web links in your other widget windows.

You can have them show up in the Web widget, in a separate pop-up window, in Safari, or not at all. This is another of my favorite features in Panes, as it gives you the freedom to look at your web content the way you want to.

I personally prefer viewing links in a pop-up window, so that whatever I am looking at in the Web widget stays there while I browse through articles from Twitter or Google Reader. Again though, it’s nice to have the options there if you prefer to use Panes in a different way.

Besides the link viewing options, Panes also has settings available for handling of in-app notifications from Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader, handling of Twitter images, and automatic refresh rates for RSS, Weather, Twitter, Facebook, Stocks, and Google Reader (all of which can be set to Manual, if you prefer).

Also, since there are so many widgets available, I appreciate that Inglorious Apps added the option to disable the ones that you have no interest in.

This prevents them from cluttering up the list when you change widgets.

Last, you can choose how you want to view your RSS or Google Reader articles in their widget windows.

The Accordion View, which I personally prefer, drops the article text down below the headline when you tap it. The Page View fills the widget’s window with the article text. The Accordion View lets you move through your feed more quickly, while the Page View gives you more room to read articles without having to open them in a pop-up window or the Web widget. Again, it’s great to have the option, depending on how you prefer to move through your feeds.

As far as the Settings and windowing system go, I came away very impressed. While Panes may not have a ton of customization available compared to other apps, the developer really managed to hit the right spots to give the app a personalized feel. I only have a handful of small of gripes about these aspect of the app. First, there can be a bit of scroll lag when viewing your Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader feeds. It’s isn’t terrible, but it’s there and gets in the way sometimes. Second, there are times when Panes has to reload or refresh itself, especially if you make any changes to settings. This is only a minor annoyance, however.

Last, I am a little mystified that, even if you try to arrange it by only turning on one extra window and sliding things around on the screen, you can’t get a true split screen view with two equal size windows. Also on the same point, you can’t turn on the Web widget in any other window but the largest one on the far right. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer the widget system in Panes to what other developers have offered to get around Apple’s restrictions in their apps. However, since the core functionality is already in place, it would be nice to have this option available in Panes for when you do need it, rather than having to go to another app just for that one feature. The developer said this was another possibility for the future, so I will be looking forward to seeing it if and when it arrives.

As if five windows of various widgets wasn’t enough, Inglorious Apps went even further, turning the very bottom of the screen into a Ticker that can display even more customized content.

The Ticker has its own entry in Settings, where it can be toggled on or off and you can get to its own set of Settings.

Once you’re there, you can choose from several items to display. First up is Weather, which is a no-brainer for me, and Stocks. Meh. I don’t really play the markets outside of my 401k, but a ticker is a perfect place for them to be displayed, if that is your cup of tea.

Now we get to the part that I really like. I use Google Reader for my personal feeds, so I tend to view that in its own window in Panes. However, even though I have it disabled in my list of widgets, I love being able to turn on the RSS option in the Ticker, and decide which of the pre-loaded sets of headlines that I will get. I don’t particularly want all the latest headline and political news cluttering up my Google Reader widget, but I love being able to glance at it on the bottom of the screen when I get a moment.

Even better, the Ticker has a set of controls that allow you to pause the Ticker and skip forward or backward if you missed a headline that you want to see more information on. When you tap on content in the Ticker, it pops up in a small window for viewing.

However, if you would like additional room, you can tap the More button, and open the article in the Web widget, as well as Tweet it, Email it, or copy the link to it.

The Ticker can also display your Google Reader unread articles or Twitter feed if you choose. Although, according to a note on the settings screen, your Twitter feed can only display if the widget is already open in a window. So, the Twitter option has limited usefulness, but the rest of the options are perfect, in my opinion, giving you full control over where and when you view content.

What else can I say about Panes, except that after entering one simple unlock code, it instantly became one of my most used app on the iPad. I absolutely love it. It is the best single app for parsing a wide variety of content in a controlled manner that I have found. Panes won’t replace every app it contains a widget for, or every content app in the App Store. It isn’t as beautiful, or the same kind of experience as Flipboard. It hasn’t caused me to suddenly delete Twitter, Facebook, Reeder, Simplenote, etc. I haven’t completely abandoned Safari. They all still have their uses, but since I unlocked the director’s cut of Panes, I have used all of the above less than I used to.

Panes certainly isn’t perfect. There are bugs here and there to be fixed, and features that hopefully will be added in the future. However, it does things that no other app in the App Store does. I guess there’s a reason for that, since it’s technically bending the App Store rules beyond the laws of physics once you enter that little code. But hey. Somebody’s got to do it, right?

It really won’t surprise me if Panes eventually runs afoul of Apple’s App Store Fun Police, but in the long run, that may be a good thing for iOS users. Just look at the attention that the removal of apps like Camera+ has generated in the past. It seems that the tech public doesn’t really take note of Apple’s gestapo bit until somebody gets tossed out of the walled garden. Unfortunately, you then get the opposite extreme, with a sudden burst of over-sensationalized puff pieces taking cheap shots at Apple from a bunch of people who didn’t know the app existed a week before, none of which contribute anything constructive to the conversation. They do at least bring a lot of attention to the matter, however.

So, if you are reading this review, and you find the features in Panes to be even remotely appealing, grab this app while it is available and show Apple your vote with your wallet. Like any successful company, that’s the kind of voice they really listen to and understand. They’ve proven this time and time again by adding functionality that was once only available through booted apps, banned hacks or jailbreak work-arounds. If users are willing to pay for and bend the rules to get a feature, Apple will eventually come around and add it. Let’s hope that they have already taken notice of apps like Panes, and are ready to take a few bricks of the garden wall down with the announcement of iOS 6 next week, giving developers a little more breathing room to create apps that push iOS forward.

Panes for iPad from Inglorious Apps is available in the iOS App Store for $2.99.

 

Panes by Inglorious Apps was independently purchased by the post author in the App Store. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

 

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