App Review: Front and Center + SwitchGlass

Every once in a while, a revolutionary app comes along that changes everything. Well this time, for me, it has been two different (and seemingly very simple) apps that work together in perfect harmony. Developed by John Siracusa of Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), these two great apps are called Front and Center and SwitchGlass. To be clear, the text that follows is not a sponsored review; I only wish to share my honest personal experience and view of each app, as I’ve really come to enjoy both of them.

Revealed respectively on ATP episodes no. 360 and no. 365, each app restores a key feature of the now defunct 32-bit app DragThing, which functioned as an organisational tool and app switcher in earlier versions of Mac OS / Mac OS X / macOS and which went beyond the standard Dock. Siracusa shared that while he has been able to adapt many of his computer habits during DragThing’s absence, he has continued to miss two key features, namely: (1) the Classic Mac OS behaviour of clicking on a single window of an app and having all associated windows of that app come to the front as well; and (2) having a dedicated, on-screen app switcher that one can click with a mouse cursor, rather than relying on the command-tab app switcher or other navigational features.

Both of these functions may sound incredibly specific and obscure and Siracusa has even been so blunt as to discourage people from purchasing his apps from the Mac App Store, as they are particular to his computing preferences.

Listening to both ATP episodes, I was curious to try the apps to see if they would fit how I work. After purchasing both and trying them with normal daily use of my Mac, I’d like to share further details of my experience below.

Front and Center (AU$7.99)

As already stated, Front and Center’s entire purpose is to restore the classic behaviour of bringing all app windows to the front when clicking on only one of the windows belonging to that app, in instances when more than one window is open for that app. For example, if you are running an app like iA Writer with multiple document windows open (as I do) and you click on just one of those windows while it is behind another app, all iA Writer windows will leap to the front. This is the default behaviour, with the option of shift-clicking to match the usual setting of having only individual windows come to the front.

As far as running Front and Center goes, there is no main app window with which to interact; it is purely a clicking behaviour. Siracusa has, however, created a very thoughtful and well-designed preference window that enables the user to customise the function, switching between ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ options, as well as the choice to show or hide the app’s icon in the Dock. I love the attention to detail in this simple window and the option to hide the icon is fantastic, as there is no need to increase visual clutter on the screen. With the process essentially invisible, this behaviour becomes the new norm. You can view the preference window below, with my current options selected.

Indeed, having these settings activated I can now see why Siracusa was unable (or just unwilling) to adjust his behaviour. Clicking on a window and expecting all the others to come to the front just makes sense. If I’m editing a document and wishing to draw text from others that I have open, it seems right that everything should follow it, rather than having to fish around for the other windows, drag things around and just create further mess on the desktop.

SwitchGlass (AU$7.99)

The idea of SwitchGlass may seem odd; why on Earth would I need a visible app switcher when I already have the Dock and additional features such as command-tab and Mission Control to alternate between windows? It certainly didn’t click for me at first. Looking at the new app switcher that was sitting on my screen, it seemed to be further visual clutter, until I realised that it could rectify a long-standing issue that I had with launching and navigating between apps on my Mac. Stay with me here.

For many years, I have oscillated between having only very few apps in my Dock to having way too many there. Quite often, I’ve settled on only having a few so that I found it easier to identify and click on only my most crucial and frequently-used apps. The issue with this, however, is that I’ve had to go to Launchpad (which I’ve never really liked or wished to organise) or open Spotlight to search for an app that isn’t in my Dock. The Home Screen (on which Launchpad is based) makes sense on iPad and Spotlight is great for opening apps on iPhone, however I find them just a bit too much on the Mac, where we have so much more space. Furthermore, with these less crucial apps now open in a more minimalistic Dock, their icons sit at the end of the Dock and change in order depending on when I open them. This is poor for consistency and recognition of icons.

With SwitchGlass, I’ve realised that I can now include as many apps as I wish in my Dock permanently—even if they’re really small—and I can use Siracusa’s new app switcher on the opposite side of my screen with larger icons to swap between running apps in a more visible and quicker fashion.

To give you a better visual idea, see a screen shot of my desktop below, with a full Dock on the left and SwitchGlass running at the top-right of the screen.

I can still use Mission Control or the command-tab switcher if I wish, however now there is something that is always available and that rests roughly where I settle my mouse cursor. I can now use the Dock for launching apps with recognisable, unchanging positions and rely on SwitchGlass to swap quickly between those that are running.

Furthermore, as is the case with Front and Center, SwitchGlass includes an even more customisable preferences window that enables you to select a precise position, alter the menu bar icon and even change the margin, padding and other dimensions of the switcher and icons. See a screen shot of my own preferences below.

Conclusion

As Siracusa has stated repeatedly, these apps are not for everyone. I have certainly had to change my own long-held habits… but I’m glad that I did.

When it comes to Front and Center, it simply feels natural to have all windows spring to the front. As a kid, I used Classic Mac OS in the 1990s but did not remember this behaviour as the years went on, as my brain had been reset to the general defaults of the following Mac OS X design and user interface.

Regarding SwitchGlass, I’m simply excited to have a really useful tool permanently on my desktop that makes my computing experience quicker. I’m dragging windows around less and searching less for the apps that I want to launch.

Apple’s desktop operating system still offers a level of customisation that many users enjoy and I hope that the company pays attention to the efforts of devoted third-party developers, whether newer to the development game like Siracusa or veterans such as James Thomson, whose now defunct DragThing is obviously still missed by numerous users. I’m a very enthusiastic user of iOS, however the possibility and availability of tools like these are a testament to the continuing power and versatility of the Mac as a platform.

You can find Front and Center and SwitchGlass on the Mac App Store or learn more at Siracusa’s site, Hypercritical. Give them a try!

(As a final note, I recall that Siracusa enjoys star ratings, so both apps receive five stars.)

Image credit for icons: John Siracusa at Hypercritical

Film Review: Carmen and Lola

Image source: IMDB

Each year, Natasha and I attend the Spanish Film Festival at Palace Cinemas in Sydney. We also go to the German and Greek festivals when we can, however the Spanish festival has become our annual tradition, as we have been going since we first got together.

This year, we made a point of seeing a film called Carmen and Lola, which I believe exemplifies the amazing kinds of storytelling that one can find beyond Hollywood.

The film follows the story of two young women, Carmen and Lola, who live in a close-knit gypsy community in the suburbs of Madrid. Both must grapple with the heavy expectations of their respective families: Carmen is engaged to be married and must come to terms with the idea that she is to be a housewife and raise as many children as possible; and Lola is somewhat of a black sheep, choosing to continue her school education and dreaming of a life at university. Furthermore, she has a passion for street art and graffiti and is also coming to terms with her love for women. They both become friends at the local market where they work and in their repeat encounters, develop a relationship and complicity that threatens to destabilise their own connections to their families.

Carmen and Lola is a beautiful film that deals with themes of love, family, friendship and tradition. Whilst the gypsy families in the film obviously love their children and wish the very best for them, their expectations are framed by years of strict, intergenerational tradition and patriarchy. Men are truly privileged—considerably more than in the surrounding non-gypsy community—and women are expected to forsake all education and any other kind of creative or professional ambition.

Music is used sparingly throughout the film, playing mainly in the form of live performance by characters, such as bands or accompanying audio systems at parties and get-togethers. This allows the viewer to experience the pure emotion of the film, without any soundtrack music telling you how to feel (as is so often the case in Hollywood movies). Simultaneously, this lack of a consistent, dominating soundtrack works with a range of long and close shots to create somewhat of a claustrophobic feel for the viewer. It almost feels like on-screen theatre. Madrid’s gypsy community is so separate from the outside world and we only hear the voices, traditional music and often drawn-out, empty silence of these underprivileged streets. The rest of the city is visible but just out of reach.

In the genuine representation of these characters, as Carmen and Lola walk the streets and go about their day, they are followed by a kind of silence—one that makes you feel like someone, perhaps a neighbour, is always watching.

As Hollywood goes about recycling stories and remaking superhero movies endlessly, many viewers will often say ‘There’s nothing good at the movies anymore’. On the other hand, foreign-language filmmakers from Europe and beyond are making unbelievably real, relatable stories that employ motifs, characters and techniques that create a totally alternative experience. As I watched Carmen and Lola, I felt the same suffocation and pressure that they did in their insular world. Films should transport you and this one certainly did.

Carmen and Lola is showing around Australia at the Spanish Film Festival at Palace Cinemas from 16 April to 26 May 2019.

Album Review: re:member by Ólafur Arnalds

Whenever I happen to stick on the radio or browse the top charts on Apple Music, I’m often disappointed by the waves of new music that I encounter. A lot of it continues to be disposable and entirely forgettable, failing to push music into really new and interesting directions.

For some reason, the nation of Iceland appears to be immune to this musical mediocrity, with bands and artists like Björk, Sigur Rós, Of a Minor Reflection and Of Monsters and Men continuing to release truly impressive albums that defy your expectations.

Neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds is no exception to this Icelandic trend. With his latest album, re:member, he has created something both beautiful and technologically innovative. The album was created with his new musical system, called Stratus. The system includes two self-playing pianos, which are triggered by a central piano that is played by Arnalds. The custom-built piano software is the result of two years of research and work by audio developer and composer Halldor Eldjarn. As Arnalds plays a note on the piano, two different notes are generated subsequently by the Stratus system, which creates unpredictable harmonies and melodies to form songs.

What is striking about this album is its subtlety and its feeling of optimism and hopefulness. Quite often, such piano music would probably be described by many as aimless, however, Arnalds is a master of holding listeners’ attention, guiding them through an often mysterious, other-worldly soundscape.

For me, this album definitely passes what I call the ‘HomePod test’. In my experience at home, Apple’s HomePod offers absolutely superb audio separation and deep bass without distortion or excessive vibration. Arnalds’s re:member sounds like it was made almost with the HomePod in mind, including shimmering, high piano notes contrasting with deep, drawn-out bass throughout many of the tracks. Each and every part of any given song shines and is clearly discernible.

Two particular stand-outs on the album (besides the opening title track) are partial and ekki hugsa, which demonstrate this HomePod-readiness. I’m typically the kind of person who detests the use of anything other than title case in my music library (harking back to my old manual iTunes file-tagging days), however, Arnalds has convinced me otherwise here. The use of lower-case letters on each track title seems fun and alternative, giving even more of a positive and informal feel to a neo-classical album.

For such a tiny nation, Iceland certainly has its act together and keeps producing impressive material. I wish that musicians in other countries would sort theirs out.

You can stream the album re:member here on Apple Music.

Album: ‘Eternal Nightcap’

As I become more of a crusty, old curmudgeon (now at the ripe, old age of 26), I’m becoming increasingly intolerant of much of the popular music that is released today.

I often spend time thinking about what defines my musical taste and which particular genres I enjoy most… it can be difficult and is highly dependent on the mood of any given day.

An album to which I frequently listen for relaxation and general nostalgia is the great Eternal Nightcap by Australian band The Whitlams. Released in 1997, its lead single No Aphrodisiac took first place in national radio station Triple J’s Hottest 100 at the time and took the band to a high level of Australian reverence. It also features a fantastic trio of related songs under the shared moniker of Charlie, all of which deal with issues such a substance abuse and depression. There’s even a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan’s classic Tangled up in Blue.

When most people think of classic Australian bands, they mention names such as AC/DC, INXS, Midnight Oil and other typical rock outfits. To me, The Whitlams are the quintessential Australian group. Diverse in sound, cheeky and at times dry in their lyrics, they capture a feeling that makes sense to both urban and regional audiences, driven by precise piano melodies.

It’s hard to pin the band to a particular genre… kind of pop-rock, sort of folk, semi-alternative and at times easy listening and funk. Frontman Tim Freedman’s vocals are often not even akin to traditional singing; I would call his style ‘rhythmic enunciation’.

This album has always been a favourite of mine and was a staple in many long road trips when I was a child in the back seat of the family car. If you’re not familiar with the band and are after something that’s a bit different, check out this album.

Review: Designed by Apple in California

Well, this was unexpected…


A short time ago, Apple released a new product; no, it isn’t a computer, in fact, it isn’t electronic at all. It’s a book, and a beautiful book at that. Titled Designed by Apple in California, the book chronicles the last 20 years of Apple product design, with a suave introduction by none other than Chief Design Officer Jony Ive. The photos were taken by Andrew Zuckerman.


Upon hearing of the book, I knew that I had to have it. I already possess Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, by Jonathan Zufi, and that does a fantastic job of tracing Apple’s entire product history. A book by Apple, however, is unique and intriguing. It is both a product in its own right and an ingenious marketing tool.

Apple’s own effort, eight years in the making, is somewhat different from Iconic in the sense that it only focuses on the last 20 years. Apple doesn’t often look back, as many analysts have noted. In this case, however, it has looked back to the point of Apple’s metaphorical ‘rebirth’, with the return of co-founder Steve Jobs. The book is even dedicated to him.

Before even opening the packaging, it’s a product to behold. The outer packaging is in fact a part of the overall book product, acting as a protective cover and with an elegant Apple product decoration on the inside.

Apple’s signature pull-tab on the box, which tears cleanly down the middle of the packaging
Packaging that functions as part of the product
An elegant, ‘whole-book dust jacket’, so to speak…

The design of this book is very impressive, as it uses ‘specially milled German paper with gilded matte silver edges’. These page edges beautifully mimic the aluminium sheen of Macs’ unibody enclosures.

Even the ink on the inside has been considered, as certain product images act differently under direct light. Take, for example, the first product that is featured: the iMac from 1998. The computer’s translucent plastic body remains matte on the page, whilst holes in the body and chrome finishes reflect light as the page is turned. This is an outstanding effect, and one can’t help but think of the more skeuomorphic design that was used in earlier versions of OS X and iOS. These printed images behave like the real-world products that they represent, just as digital buttons, icons and finishes once represented the real. This style was eventually replaced with the more minimalistic, flat design that we know today, but it makes complete sense now in a book that attempts to showcase design, without the actual products in front of the reader.

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but notice the shininess of the blue in contrast to the matte white.

If you’re curious to have a closer look at this hardcover book, you’ll have to visit one of only a selection of Apple stores. I visited the Sydney store on George Street, where both the large and small versions were displayed on custom book stands close the Apple Watch tables.

The small version, which I purchased, cost AU$289. Whilst quite expensive, the price is ultimately reflected in the quality of the product. Check out the book online here.

Some analysts and fans are concerned about the amount of retrospection that Apple has been doing of late (e.g. the recent MacBook Pro reveal video). I’m not concerned, in fact, I’m excited. Apple’s strength has always been in communicating its brand and product stories, and this is another way of doing precisely that. The company is recalling its past and understanding where its successes (and failures) lie.

Looking back at this company’s past makes me even more excited about its future.