Saturday, January 19, 2013

Time's Up: The Quest For The Perfect iOS Alarm Clock

With more and more standalone devices being replaced by your phone, it was only a matter of time for the last vestige of a 1950's relic to join the pack, the venerated and vilified bedside alarm clock. Think of it: you plug your phone in every night, and probably keep it by your bedside; why would you need a standalone chronometer? Your old landline got replace by cell; your nightly book probably by the Kindle app...time for the clock to go away, too. But which one?

Now here's where the plot thickens a bit. There are literally hundreds of alarm clock apps in the App Store, not to mention the one built in to iOS. Some are free, others a nominal charge, other exorbitant. Which to choose? Well, I'm happy to share the results of my quest, but remember: your mileage may vary with your preferences.

In choosing an App, I had a few criteria that I wanted the perfect app to give me:
  • It needed to be reliable. No special requirements or settings to work; it just needs to go off, every time, at the time set.
  • It needs to make noise to wake me, even if I have the mute switch on. I may not need the sounds of the various Twitter updates or SMS' when I sleep, but I damn well need to hear the alarm go off to get my butt up in the morning.
  • It needs to be able to stay on, all night, without turning off. If I wake up in the night, I kinda want to see what time it is, and how much longer I can sleep.
  • Related to that, it needs to be a dimmable display, so that when the room is dark, it is too, but not dark enough that I can't see it.
  • It needs to not interfere with the other phone functions. Calls gotta be able to come in, emails received, etc.
  • It should allow the display to be in either horizontal or vertical mode. In other words, I should be able to lay the phone lengthwise and see a full clock on that display.
  • Speaking of displays, it should take advantage that it's a small computer and not a collection of large diodes, and offer a clock face that's appealing, rather than a skeumorphic LED representation. If I wanted that, I'd stick with the Timex.
  • Regarding alarms, it should either offer a good selection of sounds, or allow me to use my own MP3's.
  • When that alarm goes off, it should be at a volume level I can control. Sounds simple, I know, but you'll be surprised.
Basic stuff, right? Ok, with that, here we go, in order of worst to best. Remember, this is not a comprehensive list, but my candidates.

First up, the wide variety of "alarm clock" apps. There are dozens of them. Almost all of them feature the dreaded LED clock face; while they uniformly promise customization options (usually in the paid versions), they really mean "you can change the color of the LCD." Ugh. Yep, that's what I want: being bathed in the acrid glare of an ugly "24" style clock from a Retina display. They routinely offer way too much in the way of skeumorphism, and inspire dread and hatred to look at. Pass.

Next, an interesting variant on the previous class. Night Stand 2 offers not only many of the features I like, such as multiple clock faces and MP3 alarms, but combines it with a little gamification: you earn points for actions like not hitting the snooze alarm; those points can be used to unlock new clock faces (or you can plunk down $0.99 for each face). It even makes use of Apple's fledgling GameCenter to share your accomplishments in a leaderboard to further encourage you. It also offers a multi-tiered snooze: the first grasp for that precious additional 8 minutes is fine; a second one requires you to hit it three times; a third presents you with a "connect the dots" game to require silence, and so on. The clock faces are good, even including a Nixie clock (my favorite). So why was this not a winner? First, the volume of the alarm is not controllable: it's a full bore, top volume, no choice. Good for heavy sleepers, but not me. Second, the clock faces are very cool, but the functionality varies between faces: some show the outside temperature; others do not. Some show in human time; others require military time. Too little control doomed this promising option.

Speaking of Nixie clocks, there are many in the App Store. I know, I ranted about skeumorphism, but that's only in regards to evil, mass produced LED simulcra. The warm, flickering tubes appeal to my dieselpunk sensibilities, and I welcome them. The apps that are there now are either too bare bones (lacking alarms, etc.) or poorly done. The best contender was Nixie Clock A, pictured here. Alas, it seems to have vanished from the App Store now, which is a shame, as it not only featured a good Nixie, but a settings page that features softly glowing toggle switches, and plenty of control, including a wonderful "dim mode," perfect to sleep with. The alarm sounds doomed this one: a selection of 10 is included, but all variations of the standard "beep beep" of the dreaded Timex. Think 1990's cell phone ring tones. Yep, not gonna make it.

Next up, the local ABC7 app. Intriguing: wake with weather, headlines, traffic info, and more. 
Great idea, with features a plenty: you can choose a variety of local images as backgrounds, customize the display, and even choose your favorite local ABC7 personality to wake you up with a prerecorded message. Can't beat the price, either: free. A winner, right? Alas, three issues sidelined this one: the clock is pretty small; it doesn't support landscape mode; and it has no dimmer. That glare all night is a bit harsh to sleep by. While a great app to wake to, not really a bedside companion.

Next up, something different. Sleep Cycle takes a completely different approach: instead of a time controlled sound to wake you, it takes advantage of the motion sensors of the iPhone to actually determine what your sleep cycles are: when you aren't moving, you are in deep sleep, and waking you then leaves you groggy and fighting the day. Waking you at the peak of the cycle, when you are closest to awake leaves you much more refreshed and ready to hit the day. It takes a few days for it to see what your personal sleep cycles are, but after that, you are good to go. When it wakes you, it actually wakes you in a 15 minute window around the time you want to wake up, but it won't go later than your desired time (good). And yes, it uses the vibration motor to "shake" you awake, and/or play the music until you hear it. People love this app, with anecdotes like "life changing" and "I never thought I could love an alarm clock."

So why not me? Well, I never got over the resentment of being woken earlier than the time I wanted to get up. While intrinsically I knew that it was doing the right thing, I still felt frustrated of being robbed of a quarter hour. On top of that, I found it annoying to have to literally snake the phone in between the mattress and bottom sheet nightly, wrestling it into the ideal spot. Finally, the fact that it's buried in the bedding means no clock, so we're back to the Timex to let me know the time when I wake up. And let's not get into the fact that if there's a phone call in the wee hours of the night what level of challenge it would be to grab it. In short, while an amazing and innovative idea, not suited for me.

So now we're down to our top three finalists. The 2nd runner up? Rise, a beautiful app that really understands not just waking you, but making use of the iPhone's controls. Set the alarm? Just slide your finger to where you want it, or tap above or below to move it in 5 minute increments. Display? Clean, and the gradient background colors match the time of day, so that the display is automatically set at the right brightness for you. Want to turn the alarm on? Just swipe either direction (lefties can be happy), and it's set, telling you how much time is left until the alarm goes off. Choose from a wide variety of sounds like "Gentle Chimes," "Morning News," or "Camping Trip" to set the mood for your morning, or use your favorite MP3, and choose if it should gently wake you, vibrate, or more. In essence, this app embraces the form fully.

So why not a winner? It's an alarm, not a clock. When I set the alarm, I want to see the current time, as well as how long until I awake. Landscape mode? Nope. Alas, this is the minimalist Zen-like alarm, but not a clock.

1st runner up goes to iHome's Sleep app. Made to compliment iHome's line of iPhone dockable speakers and clock/radios, it's surprisingly robust...and free. Good, clean clockface. Use built in sounds to wake to, or your MP3's. Shows the weather and moonphase on the screen. And, when you slide to tell it you're going to bed, it dims to your desired dim level. It even will greet you in the morning with your Twitter and Facebook feeds, if you want, and even post to both when you sleep and wake (yes, that's not a default, and your followers will not hate you). It tracks your sleep and gives you good reports and stats. And if you have the iHome hardware, it lets you control that, as well, with sleep sounds, radio station selection and more.

To be honest, this has been my go to app for a while, and was perfect until the recent series of updates. Why? Landscape mode was eliminated. In one sense, as it's designed to dock with the iHome hardware, that actually fits well with their business model. When it had landscape mode, it was superb. With it's elimination, less so.

Which brings us to my winner, RadiON. This app has all I want and need and more. First, there are two clock themes to choose from, both wonderfully retro: an analog/dial based one that evokes WWII electronics and dieselpunk sensibilities, and a slightly more modern "flip clock" one with wooden accents, evoking a Dieter Rams design. The animation on both clocks are superb, and smooth. The clock faces show the day of the week, time, and feature an adjustable slider for brightness that fits with the design of each face. Each clock also boasts a pseudo speaker grill for authenticity, along with three delightfully analog switches for Alarm, Radio and Sleep, as well as a power button.

Where RadioON truly shines is the alarm and radio options. It's integrated to Shoutcast, bringing you thousands of radio stations, both online and locally. The browse interface allows you to select by genres and subgenres, or by locale. When you choose a station, there's a delightful analog tuner that pops up, with the radio dial tuning in (complete with static and snippets of other stations) as it loads your stream, and rich, melodious sound emerges. You can set any station as a favorite, for easy future tuning. On the main screen, the current song and station info flow unobtrusively. Hear a song you like? You can "scrap" it for future reference. The app even includes a discovery section, promoting various collections and music types. With its robust selection of local stations, it's already relegated a couple of other radio apps I had to the recycle bin.

Alarms can be any radio station, MP3, or built in sound effect you like. You can have multiple alarms, each with it's own sounds. Plenty of alarm and clock options, including progressive volume on wake, options to prevent the display from turning off while in use, optional vibration, and much more. The free version gives you a good taste of all of this, but features ad banners that don't dim with the clock, as well as a limited selection of sounds; the inexpensive paid version is more than worth it to make this one a winner. It's only area that could stand some improvement is the size of the analog clock face: in landscape mode, it's about half the size it should be. But it's great design sensibilities, combined with great feature set, make it standout.

So there you have it. Your requirements might be far less stringent than mine. You may have a fondness for LED displays; if so, you'll have lots to choose from. For me, my search is over. Off to wake to my new favorite app!

1 comment:

NotAtWork said...

I use Siri to set my alarms, but I use the Disappearing Bedside Clock app to show me the time when I need it during the night. I ditched my clock radio in favor of this app & my iPhone on a nightstand charger. I use the app's proximity detection feature, so I just reach toward the phone to activate the time display (which I can read without my glasses).

I love being in the dark!