Many, many moons ago, I dabbled in iOS development. At the time, everybody seemed to be jumping on, but, holding me back was not only my fears that it would just be a passing fad (how wrong I was), but I also found the whole process nightmarishly difficult. I'd approached it all wrong, at the time not understanding the concepts of object-oriented programming, thinking I could just jump in and somehow it would all fall into place, and, like a house of cards, eventually it all came crashing down.
Since then, I've watched with intrigue as numerous friends have entered this shiny land of the App Store, and today, it was the turn of one such friend: Andrew J Clark.
Most of you will know him from The Menu Bar, but I first 'met' Andrew when he was putting together his precursor to TMB: I Like This... Podcast. I now recall a very in depth discussion about the technicalities of podcasting, mic technique, and goodness knows what else. But it wasn't any of that which stayed with me, in fact I'd forgotten that conversation had happened at all until right this moment; what did stick with me however was his innate confidence and an instinctive tenacity that was immediately compelling. Fast-forward to today, and that particular cocktail of talent and creativity comes to us again, this time in the shape of Numerical.
"You mean I read all that for a review on another calculator app?"
Well yes, actually, you did. You see, I imagine it's pretty easy to pass off a calculator app as somewhat inferior to 'real iOS development', whatever that means. The staple of iOS programming textbooks the world over, it is likely the first app that many have pieced together, bashing out example code without really understanding what they do, what all those square braces are for, or quite why you need at least fifty lines of code to add 2 and 2 together (sorry kids, that's just Objective C for you). It's at this point, like me, that many reevaluate the way they're going to make their fortune, and burn the textbook in their backyard for fear that it might crawl into bed one night and strangle them in their sleep. However others don't heed the warnings and release the dirge they created anyway, thus the App Store is bloated with a billion fakealators you wouldn't trust to spell 'boobies', let alone use to actually add numbers together.
So when Andrew asked me to beta test his first iOS app, it was with a modicum of trepidation that I discovered he actually wanted to release his calculator... Was I right to be wary?
Launching Numerical for the first time reveals the app's rather beautiful icon centre-stage, a nod to what is to come, followed by a fade to the main window of the app itself. As you'd expect from a calculator app, it makes use of every pixel on the screen, with the top quarter given over to output and the bottom three quarters, there or thereabouts, reserved for input, and interestingly, proportionally identical to iOS's Calculator. Helvetica Neue Ultra Light is the typeface of choice, again, in sync with Apple.
But there the similarities end.
Immediately noticeable is not the functions of the calculator, but the stunning colour scheme Andrew has chosen. Awash with a gorgeous gradient (I'd hazard a very bad guess at #fc5c41 through #de3fa0), it helps not only to attract a certain intrigue to the app (should calculator apps look delicious?), but also to visually separate both input and output; it's immediately clear what is where. Gradients came and went in the early 2000s when back-bedroom Photoshoppers plastered everything imaginable in the damned things, yet Apple, with its penchant for revitalising times past and making them cool again, has made a statement with eye-popping gradients in iOS7 and so here, I can see the appeal immediately. In fact, in comparison to Numerical, you suddenly realise how out of place Apple's own offering actually looks, a relic of a time past itself, when compared with the zing and pop throughout the rest of the OS.
Intuitively appreciative of the user
Well, it adds things up, which is a good start, I guess.
On first launch, the output display is filled with a mini-tutorial, that gives you insight into the gestures that can be employed to both navigate through the app as well as some neat touches such as swiping down to start a new equation with the currently displayed answer and swiping up to save the entire equation to a history page. It's touches like these that demonstrate a thoughtful approach to how calculators currently work, and their foibles. Everyday I type out an equation, write down the answer, clear the memory, and then type out a new equation with that answer. With Numerical, all of that nonsense is no more.
And it's around that point it hits you that Andrew has quite frankly lost his mind.
You see, I've never been good at maths (we spell it with an 's' here in the UK; god knows why, ask the Queen). That said, I like to think that I have at least a basic understanding of how an equation works. At least the last time I checked, what happens on one side of an equation has to be equally matched with what happens on the other. So yes, contrary to popular belief, 2 + 2 will equal 4 and 3 - 3 will equal, err...
Anyway, the point is this: in Numerical, there is no ability to type in an equal sign and round out the equation. It simply doesn't exist (believe me, I checked). And rather than calling out the insanity of its creator as I so unashamedly just did, that's actually the genius of this app: Andrew has eradicated redundancy, removed complication, and put simply, thought about the user. Sure, an equation has to be able to equal, but why should the user have to worry about that? It is the part of an equation that must happen in every instance, so why can't the app take care of that repetitive burden?
Numerical does just that. Add two numbers together, and by the power of witchcraft, the answer appears up top. Plus, take the equals sign out of the equation (see what I did there?) and you suddenly have room for keys that would normally be left out, or otherwise relegated to a different view.
But aspects of this app's intrinsic usability don't stop there. Dependant on the part of the equation you're at, certain keys will grey out, visually cueing you for what you need to input next. Just tapped an operator? They grey out. Just tapped an opening parenthesis? Well duh, the closed one isn't needed yet. Just hit the decimal point? Come on, what kind of idiot types two points in succession?
One thing infuriates me about traditional calculators: unless you spend more on a scientific version that is both cumbersome and, outside a nuclear test-site, frankly unneeded, you have no idea what you've already pressed. Make one mistake, and it's game over and you must start over. With Numerical, in one iPhone-sized display, you have both answers and equations displayed prominently, one above another, seemingly without any sacrifice in usability or legibility. For me, a guy with fat fingers and a terrible memory, who should probably wear glasses, this feature is a winner.
Packaged with the main view of the app is a secondary window (swipe from the left edge) that lists all your previously completed equations. Traditionally of course, your Casio would have room for one answer in memory, but it had no way of storing how that number was reached: again, Numerical comes to the rescue. It's the small things.
With every up...
So there's a but coming, right? Well, yes and no: none of this is major.
First impressions count. Everybody remembers the intro videos from their Macs of old. Ken Segall once talked eloquently about how much time, money, and effort, Apple spent on getting those very few seconds absolutely perfect, and, when you compare the duration of those videos to the total usage time you'll get out of your Mac, you can see right there, exactly what Apple thinks is important, and why their products have the appeal that they do. I'm not saying Numerical should have a million-dollar video to talk you through the features of a calculator app, absolutely not, but it does seem like the tutorial is perhaps unfinished business. It's minor, but compared with the elegance of the rest of the app, it does seem a little out-of-place. Oh and a thing only a language student such as myself would say: why are 'Left', 'Right', 'Up', 'Down' and 'History Page' capitalised mid-sentence? I know, I'm splitting hairs.
Secondly, to sounds. I'll state upfront, I've never been a fan. I turn off key clicks on every device I own, if an app has an option to silence sounds, I'll take it, and if a website employs any aural output, big or small, I'll click away. I hate the shutter sound when you press the power button on your iPhone, the swoosh when you send email from Mail, and that interminable system sound when you power on your Mac. To date, only Tweetbot is the exception to that rule. I have no idea why its sounds seem to resonate with me when others don't, but it seems like it will stay that way. It's not that the sounds in Numerical are offensive, they're just not for me, and, with no ability to turn them off from within the app, the only response is to silence my phone, which is not a solution that fits every scenario. I can understand that aural feedback may be desired, or even required, but with a display that gives you all the insight into key presses that you need, I do wonder if it's a step too far. (Of course I'm acutely aware that I entirely railroad accessibility by making this point, but even then, there's better ways to point user's in the right direction.)
And finally, to Helvetica. Within this review, I've already stated that Andrew has accented the design cues of iOS7 to his advantage with this app, and here I am using the exact same argument against him in the use of iOS7's system font. Well, yes and no. With the gradient, Andrew took it from one section of iOS7 (system apps) and applied it in a different situation (within the app itself). That I like. It calls out the aesthetic and uses it in new and unanticipated ways. With Helvetica however, and especially with Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, it just seems a bit, well, 'samey'. Don't get me wrong, there are some great touches here: Andrew took the time to replace Ultra Light's standard comma and period with much more, visually distinguished variants (a trick that Apple also employs in Calculator itself), however as much as I am an ardent fan of Helvetica, it is just...Helvetica.
A calculator without equal
So, adding it all up (even I winced at that one), it's clear that Numerical is head and shoulders above what the App Store already has to offer. Every element of design, in how it looks, and how it works, has been carefully considered, and there is a plethora of intuitive touches that make using the app so simple and so joyful.
Andrew has clearly thought out the schema of standard calculators and ameliorated current functionality with a superset of design elements that come straight from the heart of somebody who understands modern UI/UX principles, so much so that Numerical features proudly on my first screen of apps and will be replacing the system calculator for all tasks from this point forward.
Sure, there could be (tiny, incy-wincy) improvements, and from a 2.0 maybe everything from more scientific functionality through to variations on colour schemes could be options, but hell, what do I know? This is after all Andrew's first app; all you've got to do is look at Numerical and you see into the mind of somebody who 'gets it'.
And of course, there's at least a smidgen of envy in that he persevered when I did not. Goddamn clever-arsed, Australian, podcasting, iOS developing, s...
Numerical is available now in the App Store for £1.99.