Application of the Week

Vignette, an Android Camera App (#vignette)

I’ve had an Android phone for just over a year now and the thing that amazes me most is the sheer range and diversity of the apps that are available.  There’s nothing more satisfying than finding out that your phone can enhance your life in ways you’d never have thought possible.

For a long time I stuck to the free apps, for they are many, and I’ve got some really great tools.  Tweetdeck to manage Twitter and Facebook, WordPress for my blog here, Google Sky Maps, Google Reader, Amazon’s Kindle app, Evernote.  Loads of them.  But the first app I bought was a camera app called Vignette and this remains my favourite app of them all.

Vignette Application Icon

Vignette is a camera app, taking your built-in Android phone camera and enhancing it with a wide variety of photographic effects and frames.  The free version is good up to a certain image resolution, the paid-for version is good up to the full resolution of your camera.  Trust me on this, you want the paid version.

When you fire up Vignette it gives you a slightly different view of your camera than the standard.  Down the left (or at the top) you’ve the zoom control, at the right (or at the bottom) you’ve got the actual controls for shooting mode, hardware settings, resolution, and – this is my favourite bit – frames & effects.

Kids in Lanzarotte

Vignette operates by taking the photograph and then applying the chosen effects and frames to it.  This can either be a destructive process (you don’t keep the original image) or a non-destructive process (where a copy of the original picture your camear captured is kept).  Obviously, if you’ve got the space on the memory card, you want to keep the originals.

The shooting mode screen lets you pick the usual normal photos, fixed focus shots, self-timer, the slightly annoying “steady shot” mode that waits until your camera is rock-steady before taking the photo (trying to grab a shot of something whilst holding my 9-month old boy over the weekend, I had to switch this off!) and the far more interesting time lapse, strip, grid, double-exposure and blind shots.  See?  The potential for fun is there already.  You can only pick one of these modes, so you can’t shoot blind double-exposures in time-lapse, but would you really want to?

Snow's Coming

Once you get to the Effect and frame menu you’re into really fun territory.  I recommend trying completely random to start with – random effect, random frame.  You cannot predict from one photograph to the next what you’re going to get.  It’s great.  The only problem with that is that every once in a while you will see an amazing photograph and wonder what effects were applied to make it that way – and there’s no way to work that out.  Frames you can make a good guess at (that’s a panoramic shot, or that’s the 35mm film frame) but effects?  If you can work those out then you’re better at this than me!

When you open up the effect menu the choices are overwhelming.  There’s a full list of the effects on the developer’s website:

Once you get a combination you like, you can save it to your favourites and even create a shortcut to launch Vignette with those settings pre-configured.

Oscar Charlie

There’s an active group on flickr for sharing the photos you’ve taken – it’s here: – and there are some truly beautiful photos on there.  Those in the know add the settings they’ve used on their app so you can have a reasonable chance of replicating the photographic style they’re using.

Vignette was the first app I bought, having played with the demo of the app for a day.  Not once have I regretted it.  When I’ve had questions about the app, the developers have been a joy to deal with.  They take feedback very seriously, every email goes into a tracking system so that it is not forgotten and not ignored.

The photographs dotted about this post are ones I’ve taken using the random frame / random effect setting.  I love not knowing how a picture is going to turn out, it adds a magic to the process that the move to digital cameras has lost.

One final trick that this app can do – it will apply effects to photographs you’ve already taken.  If you copy pictures from your desktop across onto your phone’s memory card you can then play with them to your heart’s content!

Some Road in Shetland

Application of the Week

Application of the Week – yWriter (#amwriting @spacejock)

We’re all looking for that application that makes our lives easier, helps us do what we need to do without getting in the way with irritating little popups, wizards, and “helpful” suggestions.  “It looks like you’re writing a novel!  Would you like some help with that?”  Yes, Clippy, it would be most helpful if you’d just bugger off and never come back!yWriter, for me, is that application.  It does exactly what I need, doesn’t get in the way, gives me very useful feedback and runs on both of my computers – the Windows box at work and the Linux box at home.

yWriter is the brainchild of the author and programmer Simon Haynes.  You can find him and his work over at  As an author himself, the good Mister Haynes knew what he needed when writing his Hal Spacejock novels and couldn’t find it available off the shelf.  So he wrote it.  Now 5 versions down the line, this wonderful tool is just one of many on his (virtual) shelf and it is incredibly useful.

Let’s take a spin through the features.When you open the software you’re presented with a brief splash screen.  If it’s the first time you’ve run yWriter, you’ll be given the option to run through the “New Project Wizard”.  This is the first and only time you’ll be prompted to run a wizard, after that they’re entirely optional.  This just sets up your first project, puts it in the folder of your choice, things like that.  I’d recommend you install Dropbox if you haven’t yet, set your projects up inside a Dropbox-synchronised folder and then you’ve got automatic off-site backups that you can access from anywhere in the world.

yWriter Main Screen

The main interface.  Pick a project, any project.  Down the left you’ll have your chapters, in the middle the scenes in those chapters, at the bottom the notes on the scenes/chapters.  Simple.  And this brings us to the key organisational gem of this software – the Scene.  Instead of writing your novel as one huge slab of text (as you might if you’re using Word without Master and Sub- Documents), you break it down into easy-to-manage scenes.  This is fantastic for turning the task of writing, say, 50,000 words in a month (*cough* *cough*) into the far simpler task of writing 50 scenes, each around a thousand words long.  Scenes exist within Chapters, Chapters within Sections, Sections within a Project.  Simple.  Everything is movable – re-order chapters, re-order sections, move scenes around, whatever you need to do!  Each scene keeps a running total of how many words it’s got, chapters add those up, projects give you a grand total of how many words they contain.  The software also keeps a track of how many words you’ve written in a day – when you start editing, this number quickly goes into the negative and that can be a little depressing.

As you can see, you can keep track of characters (major and minor), locations, items, notes on the scene, goals (and conflicts and outcomes)…  So far I’ve just scratched the surface of what this software can do but each time I find something new, it’s something more helpful than before.  I haven’t even touched on storyboarding and scene cards yet!

If you find you don’t need a scene, don’t delete it!  Mark it as “Unused” and it won’t count towards your grand total, won’t be included in any exports.  You can mark entire chapters this way.  My project setup includes a chapter called “I’d like to use this, just not sure where” and contains those scenes that have the germ of a good idea but no real place in the overall story as yet.
Now, the price.  You can spend a lot on software to write novels.  Microsoft Office isn’t cheap, Open Office is free  – and is the word-processor-of-choice for the Writer’s Cafe suite ( £24 at the time of writing, Linux, Mac and Windows).  Scrivener, one of the main sponsors of NaNoWriMo ( £30, only available for Macs at the moment but there’s a beta for Windows).  Okay, so not exactly “a lot”, but it’s certainly a lot more than yWriter.  It’s free.  As in costs nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And for that, what have you got to lose?  Get it downloaded and check it out.

On Windows, you’ll need a machine with the latest .NET libraries installed to get it working.  On Linux it works with Mono 2.4 or better.  I’m installing it on my newly-built CrunchBang box here at the office at the moment.

Another very good reason to visit – as if yWriter and the rest of the collection of applications there isn’t enough – is the Hal Spacejock series of books.  Just to get you hooked, and to keep you coming back for another fix, the first one’s only $1.99.  Of course, you’ll want to get the lot for your eBook reader, so this link will take you straight to the shop:

So, he’s an author, a programmer, a cyclist and an all-round great guy.  If I’ve had trouble with yWriter, he’s responded to tweets and emails quickly and we’ve got everything resolved.




Application of the Week

It’s all about Browser Choice.

Today’s application, and the one to start the ball rolling, is one most people will spend the most time using.  I’m talking about the window to the world wide web: Your web browser.

Over the past few years, I’ve used all of the main web browsers plus a few more minor ones. When you’re asked to choose, this might help…

Opera. This browser is a real hotbed of development and interesting ideas.  It might not get as much publicity as Firefox or Chrome but an awful lot of very good ideas started out in this closed-source browser.  Tabs for browsing? Yup, they did it first.  The shrunken menu-come-file-button Firefox are using in 4? Opera did that first as well.  Widgets and plugins? First in Opera.  It has integrated mail and bit-torrent clients and an active developer community for add-ons.  Fast to load, a very informative and useful status bar and a load of nifty things built in.  Want to disable images? Click there.  Stop Javascript on a page? Just there.  Reload a page every few seconds (invaluable in the last few seconds of an eBay auction)? All on the right-click.

Downsides?  Well, none that I can think of for day-to-day use.  The torrent client doesn’t work behind my works proxy but apart from that nothing.  Why don’t I use it then?  Not sure.  Might have to spend a month with it to the exclusion of all others.

Firefox Possibly the biggest threat to Internet Explorer the world has ever seen.  Well, it’s certainly dented Microsoft’s browser share here in the UK and it’s the one I picked as the browser of choice for the systems I administer.  It’s not as rich in features as Opera straight out of the box but the sheer wealth of extensions available is amazing.  With the right extensions you never need to leave the browser.  We install a standard suite of extensions to make our users understand why we changed to Firefox – Ad Block to remove all those unsightly adverts on websites, Fast Dial to give them a range of big shiny buttons to press, Colourful Tabs to make it all look pretty.  Oh, and IE Tab to make sure everything they’re expecting to work (*cough*Sharepoint*cough*) works properly.  And then we set them loose in the add-ons area to search for stuff they might find interesting.I used Firefox exclusively from its initial release right up until I spent some time using Chrome.  Now I dive in for tearing websites apart using the fantastic developer extensions.

Downsides?  Rebooting the browser every time you install or update an extension.

But my browser of choice (at the moment) is…

Chrome I’m typing this post from my WordPress dashboard in Chrome.  My browser here at home synchronises with my Gmail account – history, passwords, extensions, themes, the lot.  I know Firefox can do this but Chrome’s synch always seemed to work so much better.   Chrome’s extensions started out slowly, it took a while for some of the important ones (Ad Block, for instance) to get there but I now have some 30 extensions installed, most of which do something useful.     It’s faster to load than Firefox, has a marginally more useful start page straight out of the box and you don’t have to reboot every time you install or update an extension.  The thing that really raises it head and shoulders above the others at the moment is the App Store.

I know, everyone has to have an App Store nowadays.  Apple started it, but Chrome took it to the browser.  There are some shining gems of applications – Tweetdeck for Chrome is a genuine beauty – and there are some shining, polished, turds – applications that are nothing more than links to websites.

All of the big 4 browsers support the new HTML5 specifications with differing degrees of success but that’s improving all the time and there’s a lot of fun stuff coming up.

Most websites will work with any browser you choose.  If you’ve got to use a particular browser to view a site, then that’s the sign of some dodgy programming – the SQA website uses a bit of code that only works in Internet Explorer because IE uses a particularly daft interpretation of one of the date functions and all the other browsers do it right.  Huge chunks of SharePoint only work in IE because it’s so strongly tied in to the operating system. I can forgive SharePoint, though, as it’s more like an extension of Office and everything I’ve tried works in IETab so far.

Anyway.  Long story short.  Pick a different browser, install it and give it a go. has them all, as far as I can see.  I’m going for for April, see how it goes.#

Thanks for reading, see you Wednesday for  Doctor Who!  Castles & Crusades! Carcassonne! Running!  And other random stuff…