Monday 16 March 2015

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Monday 9 March 2015

Free Fitness Apps for iOS

I recently wrote about an excellent iOS app called ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ which can guide you through graded programs to improve your fitness by exercising a few times a week using your own bodyweight and a few simple accessories such as tables and chairs (no ‘gym equipment’ required).  I’ve been using this app for ten weeks now and, in terms both of content and presentation, I rank it very highly. When not working with computers, I teach the Japanese martial art of Aikido and the ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ app was recommended to be my a fellow martial artist.

But, of course, it is not the only fitness app for iOS. Far from it! There are hundreds of competing apps aimed at getting you fit. Some of them are free. Others have a free introductory or ‘lite’ edition to let you evaluate the software before investing in the full commercial version. Here I take a look at a few free apps that I’ve been trying out over the past few weeks.

Sworkit Lite

This is one of the most popular fitness training apps for iPhone and iPad. It lets you pick from four different types of workout: Strength, Cardio, Yoga and Stretching. Once you’ve selected an exercise type you can pick from a list of pre-defined workouts such as (for example) Light Warmup Cardio, Full Intensity Cardio or Plyometrics Jump Cardio. You are then presented with a video of a figure (variously a man or a woman) doing sets of exercises for a predefined, user-selectable, period between 5 and 60 minutes.  You can also download extra custom workouts and install one of these at a time. If you upgrade to the Pro version ($1.99), you can install or create an unlimited number of custom workouts. While this is a nice looking piece of software which may motivate users to follow along with the videos, I find it lacking in detail. There are no instructions on the correct ‘form’ of each exercise. It is really just a case of ‘watch and do’. So, in spite of its popularity, I am slightly underwhelmed by Sworkit Lite and have no plans to upgrade to the Pro edition.

Daily Workouts Free

This is another extremely popular fitness app – which is not surprising given the fact that it provides in a huge number of exercises which are selectable by category: ab, arm, butt, cardio and leg workouts.  Some of these workouts are pure bodyweight exercises, requiring no equipment; others, such as the arm exercises, require small dumbbell weights. The exercises are accompanied by videos and there are also text descriptions of the correct form for each exercise though annoyingly these are only visible in portrait mode (I generally use my iPad in landscape orientation).  This is not one of the best-looking apps I’ve ever seen. The user interface is a bit clunky-looking and the videos seem to have been recorded in the corner of someone’s living room rather than in front of the ever-fashionable white screen or in a proper ‘set’. Even so, it’s a pretty decent app with some fairly challenging exercises. The free version is definitely worth a try. The full version, which costs a reasonable $3.99, has more routines , operates in landscape mode and removes the advertising that pops up across the bottom of the screen in the free edition.

Abs Workout: Get Your Six Pack

But maybe your main goal is to transform your flabby tummy into a rippling ‘six-pack’. Well,  there are plenty of apps that claim to do that and this is one of the top-rated ones. This shows computer-generated images of virtual men or women (the models are user selectable) performing sets of exercises with, optionally some music and a synthesised voice counting out “one…two” as you do each exercise. You can set yourself a workout schedule and you can pick various workout types – such as ‘Classic 8 Minute Abs’, ‘Super Fast 3 Minute workout’, ‘Chest and Abs Mixed workout’ and so on. Only the Classic 8 Minute workout is completely free. However, you can in fact follow all the other workouts for free too as long as you allow a short full-screen advertisement to be shown before it loads. If you want to remove the advert you can buy the additional workouts generally for between $1.99 and $2.99. This is great value and the workouts are solid. I must say, though, that I would prefer videos of a real-person instructor plus more information on the correct ‘form’ of each exercise.

The Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout App

There are lots of “7 Minute Workout” apps available but this claims to be the ‘official one’ since the workouts are planned and presented by Chris Jordan, the man who created the original 7 Minute Workout plan. Produced by  Johnson & Johnson (the people who make the baby shampoos and health products), the app is completely free and it is almost, but not quite, perfect. On the plus side, it looks great and the teacher gives clear verbal instructions on correct form and he demonstrates each exercise in videos that include a second-by-second countdown on an onscreen clock. You can follow groups of exercises for 7 minutes - or longer if you want a greater challenge. There is also a ‘learn’ mode that lets you select an individual exercises  to study. So what’s  the downside? Well, unlike the apps reviewed previously, the content is not fully downloaded for offline use. It requires Wi-Fi access to download some elements as you go along. If you haven’t got Wi-Fi access or if (like me) your broadband connection is slow and of variable quality you might have problems. I find, for example, that the videos sometimes freeze as the downloads progress. A great shame. This is so very nearly a wonderful app. But it needs to have an option for complete ‘offline’ usage. If that is added, I will be happy to withdraw my criticism.

Workout Series

This is a brand new app (released on February 17th, 2015) but its content was already familiar to me from the web-based workouts at In fact, the app is really a stand-alone interface to the materials on the web site so, just like the Official 7 Minute Workout App, it requires a Wi-Fi connection in order to use it. Once again, that requirement earns it a few negative points from me. Even so, assuming you have a good internet connection, the actual workouts are first rate. There are workouts of many different types, some that include equipment such as dumbbells and kettlebells, others (and these are the ones I’m interested in) are pure bodyweight workouts. There are two instructors – a man and a woman – and they often show alternative forms of each exercise so that you can switch between an easy and a difficult form according to your ability. There are lots of workout variants – 7 minute workouts, abs workouts, warmups, cooldowns and much more. This is a really good resource, which I strongly recommend. But bear in mind that the app version is not really much different from the standard web-based version so you are not getting anything significantly different on your iPad or iPhone than you would get if you logged onto the web site using a desktop computer.


So do any of the free apps mentioned here rival the You Are Your Own Gym app that I’ve been using for the past ten weeks? In some respects both the Workout Series and The Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout App cover much of the same ground and do a pretty good job of it. If you have a fast and reliable internet connection, I’m sure you could make excellent progress by following either of these. Daily Workouts Free is good too and doesn’t need a Wi-Fi connection. It doesn’t look as slick as some of the other apps though and its descriptions of the correct exercise form are somewhat limited. Abs Workout: Get Your Six Pack is great value if you want to concentrate exclusively on your mid-section but I’m not really all that keen on the animated ‘virtual people’ and you will need to buy the commercial edition if you want to get rid of the advertising. Sworkit Lite looks really nice and would work well as a ‘motivational’ tool if you have already studied the correct form of each exercise, but I would be reluctant to rely upon it as the sole source of good workout information. After trying all these, however, I am more than ever convinced that You Are Your Own Gym is the most satisfactory app (that I have yet discovered) for anyone who needs a serious bodyweight fitness routine that teaches both good exercise form and also leads you through a sequence of progressively graded workouts.

Monday 2 March 2015

Tiffen Dfx v4 Photo
$129.99 (standalone)
$149.99 (photo plugin)
$499.95 (film/video plugin)
Upgrade prices:

Once upon a time, many years ago in a time known as the 1980s I used to photograph pop stars for teen magazines. When I wanted to add a bit of sparkle or give the photos a soft-focus blur I would have to place a ‘filter’ (a piece of coloured or textured glass) over  the lens of my camera. Special-effects filters had to be applied at the time the photograph was taken. Now that most photography is digital we are used to adding colours, blurs and other effects on a computer rather than in the camera. And that’s where the Tiffen Dfx suite comes into its own.

Here I am applying the Pastel filter. I’ve selected a preset and then made adjustments to parameters in the panel on the right. I’ve divided the preview to show the applied effects on the right of the photo and the original on the left.
Tiffen is a company whose reputation is built upon its traditional ‘on camera’ optical filters. Its Dfx software is, to some extent, a digital simulation of many of the company’s glass filters. It lets the digital photographer apply photographic effects that were traditionally created using camera lenses, filters, film grain and photographic lab processing.  The Dfx suite is available either as a standalone application or as an add-in for Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Aperture. There is also a video version that can be used with Adobe After Effects, Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Motion 5 and Avid Editing Systems 64 bit on Windows 7 or 8 or Max OS X 10.7 and above. For this review I used the standalone photo suite on Windows 7.

I reviewed the last version of Tiffen Dfx (v 3) previously. This new version retains the software’s neat, easy-to-use interface so even if you’ve never used it before you should find it pretty simple to get started. It supplies a huge range of ready-to-use effects (over 130) which can be customised by setting parameters in a docked panel. New features include some non-realistic filters such as cartoon and pastels as well as a ‘Grunge’ filter to add on digital scratches, grain, hairs and splotches – just in case you think your digital pictures look just too damn’ clean!

You can apply multiple effects in ‘layers’ with each layer shown at the left of the screen. Here I have applied several effects to soften the image and add a golden tone to simulate a late summer’s evening.

Principal New Features
  • OFX plug-in support, making Tiffen Dfx compatible with professional digital intermediate programs Blackmagic Design Davinci Resolve and Assimilate Scratch, as well as the high-end Nuke visual effects program from The Foundry. It also expands NLE support to include Sony Vegas® and DaVinci Resolve Lite. 
  • 12 new filters – Borders, Cartoon, Colorize Gradient, Detail, Develop, Grunge, Harris Shutter, Pastel, Pearlescent®, Radial Tint, Satin® and Tone Adjust 
  • 93 historical film processes and 30 motion picture film stocks added as new presets within the popular film stocks filter 
  • More parameters and tools added to presets – includes new tools for color correction, tint enhancement and gradient control 
  • Process in 32-bit floating point precision – ability to selectively access your image’s dynamic range without clipping values in a true non-destructive workflow. Improved easier and faster “on board” masking tools for the Dfx still programs – photo plug-in and standalone. 
  • New edge-aware smoothing algorithm (for skin smoothing) added to some filters for refined control and application 
  • New Curve Tool for still programs – designed to control tonal range through RGB and individual red, green and blue curves. Adjustable curve points for shadow and highlight control 
  • Improved Interface – new optimized preview size – images can now be previewed in 4096, 2048 and 1024 pixels. Keyboard control added for brushes and new look to sliders, buttons and icons. Mac Retina display support.

In summary, this is a really nice application for digital photographers who want to enhance their pictures with filters that recreate natural-looking glass-filter, film and lens effects. The addition of some non-naturalistic effects such as Cartoon is an added bonus. All in all, this is a nice addition to the software toolset of the serious digital photographer.