Valiant Hearts—The Great War: game review

Valiant Hearts—The Great War. A soldier stands wearing a backpack, beside a medical dog wearing a red cross.
Valiant Hearts—The Great War

I’m not a particularly keen, or good, gamer. My PC games are mostly limited to a few Call of Duty titles (for the interactive, cinematic experience), a few variations of the Chinese game mahjong, chess, the magnificent Dear Esther (which has unfairly been described as ‘a walking simulator’), and quite a few LEGO games.

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded Valiant Hearts via Steam; it was on special offer. I finished it last week—it was brilliant!

Valiant Hearts is set during world war one, which ties it in nicely with the centenary of its outbreak.

It follows the journeys of four ordinary people’s experiences of war.

  • Emile is a French farmer who becomes a prisoner of war, and later escapes.
  • Karl is Emile’s (I guess) son-in-law. He’s a German, living in France, who gets recalled back to fight for Germany.
  • Freddie is an American soldier who is fighting to avenge the death of his wife in a German bombing attack.
  • Anna is a Belgian nurse who attends to wounded soldiers (both German and allied forces) on the battlefield.

Besides the playable characters there is also a dog, Walt, who can be used to solve puzzles. You can also stroke him, and tickle his tummy, which is a really sweet addition.

I found the game entirely gripping. From the artwork, to the music and sound effects, to the puzzles, to the characters,  to the historical detail. While the characters and story line is fictional, it is based on historical fact which makes it all the more moving.

I love that one of the main characters (Anna) is a woman, and a strong woman at that. She is brave and compassionate.

I had read quite a few reviews before I played the game where people confessed that they cried at the end of the game. As the final level was loading I considered this. I had been moved by the stories, I had identified with the characters, but I didn’t feel this was enough to make me cry.

I was wrong. As the final level progressed, I cried.

If you’re looking for a great adventure-style, puzzle game, then I can thoroughly recommend Valiant Hearts. It gets a 10/10 from me.

Write! (beta) — a distraction-free text editor for Windows

Write! A distraction-free text editor for Windows. Here it is showing the navigation bar.
Write! A distraction-free text editor for Windows. Here it is showing the navigation bar.

A few months ago, while I was editing some documents in Markdown, I came across Write! — a new text editor (still in beta) that is being marketed as “writing instrument for digital age [sic]” and a “distraction-free text editor that does not suck”. So I downloaded it and took it out for a spin.

I like it, but…

For the most part I like Write! It’s clean, it’s fast, and it has a minimal set of usable features that don’t get in the way.

It’s like a prettier Notepad but with a spell checker, a navigation bar on the right-hand side (like Sublime Text), and a basic understanding of Markdown (so you can make text bold, for example, by typing **example**).

I have a couple of issues, though, which prevents me from using this as my text editor of choice for writing.

Proprietary format

My main niggle is that by default Write! saves to its own proprietary format. This is a zipped, XML-based file format (.wtt), and as far as I can tell this isn’t compatible with the OpenDocument text (.odt) format. The simple document above (showing the first chapter of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) contains the following files:

  • document.xml — the actual document, plus some meta data such as word count.
  • history.xml — an undo history.
  • package.xml — this seems to define the package format and encoding (UTF-8).

You can export to PDF, OpenDocument, plain text, and three flavours of Markdown (Textile, Markdown, and Wiki) but that has more of a disruptive workflow than simply tapping Ctrl+S every few minutes.

Similarly, it would be great to be able to associate Write! to open certain file types, such as text (.txt) or Markdown (.md, .mdown) files.

Not full Markdown support

By default I tend to use basic, vanilla Markdown rather than Textile or Wiki). By default Write! is configured to support a mixture of the other two. That’s not a problem as a quick visit to the settings will put that right.

Write! settings dialog
Write! settings dialog

But Write! only supports a small subset of Markdown:

Supports

  • Headers prefixed with hash (# for H1, ## for H2, etc.).
  • Unordered lists using minus (-) and plus (+).
  • Numbered lists.
  • Links (but you cannot easily edit the link, text or title).
  • Emphasis (italics and bold) using asterisks (*) or underscores (_).
  • Automatic links in the format <http://example.com/>.
  • Backslash escapes, e.g. \*literal asterisks\*.

Does not support

  • Setext style headers (underlined using equal signs or dashes).
  • Blockquotes.
  • Unordered lists using asterisk (*).
  • Code blocks — 1 tab, 4 spaces or three backticks (“`).
  • Inline code using single backticks (`.example {}`).
  • Horizontal rule.
  • Images.
  • Automatic links for email addresses, e.g. <[email protected]>.

Cannot type with help window open

This seems to be a basic requirement that has been overlooked: if I tap F1 to bring up the help text (shortcuts and markup) I cannot keep the help window open while typing into Write! If I start to type I get an irritated ‘bong!’ sound from my PC.

Surely I should be able to refer to the help text while typing.

Conclusion

If Write! supported at least:

  1. The ability to select which format to save to by default (even on a document-by-document basis); (MUST)
  2. The ability to open certain file types in Write! (MUST)
  3. Full support for Markdown. (MUST)
  4. Ability to type while referring to the help text. (SHOULD)

then I would without a doubt use this text editor for all sorts of small writing tasks, such as writing documentation, journalling, text editing, etc. Until then, I’ll just keep updating the beta and see what gets added in the future.

For me this is definitely one application to keep an eye on but it isn’t for production use quite yet.

Bonus

What is nice is that you can vote for future features from the website’s Feedback link. One of those suggestions is to save in plain text format; I’ve just submitted an idea to fully support Markdown.

Review of Startup Framework for WordPress

Startup Framework

I first came across Startup Framework from Designmodo a few months ago and was immediately impressed.

Startup is a collection of responsive and customisable components that can be combined to meet most needs. In the full version there are around 100 components such as:

  • headers
  • footers
  • content blocks
  • contact forms
  • portfolio grids
  • maps
  • price tables
Startup Framework is a collection of customisable components
Startup Framework is a collection of customisable components

Both the design and code are clean and simple and the results look professional, without having to put in a great deal of effort. Startup has a similar concept to Blocks which is built on the Bootstrap CSS framework.

Startup Framework for WordPress

Last month I was invited to test drive Startup Framework for WordPress which combines the pre-designed components of Startup within a drag-and-drop interface within a WordPress theme.

I’ve only just managed to find the time to take it for a spin but what I’ve seen so far I’ve liked, even if the price seems a little steep: USD $149 per year for one website (inclusive of support and updates).

Theme

Startup Framework for WordPress installs as a theme. It seems to adds one new content type (SFW Pages) and the demo doesn’t give me access to the plugins so I can’t see whether the additional functionality is offered through plugins or built-into the theme itself.

What is added, however, is a new menu item: SFW Pages. This is where the majority of pages using this theme will be created. The default Pages option is still there but pages created using this appear to be simple and entirely centre-aligned, which seems odd.

A new menu item is added to the WordPress dashboard: SFW Pages.
A new menu item is added to the WordPress dashboard: SFW Pages.

Editing a page

When editing a SFW Page you see very little until you click the “Visual editor” button.

Unless you click the Visual editor button all you see is a button saying Visual editor
Unless you click the Visual editor button this is all you see.

That opens up a new drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface:

Welcome to the Startup Framework demo page
Welcome to the Startup Framework demo page

Along the top is a link back to the SFW Pages screen, the name of the current page, and three buttons on the right than enable you to reorder the blocks, preview the page or save the page.

On the left is a list of components (more about those in a moment).

But the most space is given to the content of your page. Here, almost everything is customisable. When you hover over a component block a settings cog appears at the top right giving you access to edit the HTML and CSS, reset the block to default settings, or delete the block completely.

Clicking on any text drops in a text-insertion point enabling you to edit the text. Double-clicking or highlighting text reveals a context menu offering three options: bold, italic or create a link.

It is all very intuitive so far.

Components

The bread and butter of this theme, however, is the collection of pre-designed components which is available at any time from a list on the left. (While you are editing existing components this shrinks to a ‘hamburger’ icon.)

On the demo that I’ve tried these components are collected into the following categories:

  • Headers
  • Contents
  • Price Tables
  • Projects
  • Contacts
  • Crew
  • Footers
  • My Blocks

Hovering over each category reveals a number of pre-designed options for that category, for example Headers:

Hovering over Headers reveals a number of pre-designed header options
Hovering over Headers reveals a number of pre-designed header options

These can then be dragged and dropped (or clicked) to be added to your page design, and  then edited as appropriate.

Some components are more editable than others, such as background images, image fading or colour tinting, social media buttons, etc.

Reordering the blocks is a simple case of clicking the “Reorder Blocks” button, then drag and drop in the new view:

Reorder Blocks shows a zoomed-out view of the whole page.
Reorder Blocks shows a zoomed-out view of the whole page.

Conclusion

I have only a couple of criticisms about

The first is that, personally, I would like to see a few more simple header components. For some pages, you don’t need a massive image or a lot of white space at the top. But I do recognise that this is a design decision.

My second, any main concern, however is the price. At USD $149 (approx GBP £93) per year for a single site that is more than twice what I currently pay for Divi.

That said, I do recognise that a lot of work has gone into this framework and theme, and that it’s aimed primarily at business rather than for personal blogs.

Overall, I’ve been really impressed with Startup Framework for WordPress. If you need to create a beautiful, modern-looking and responsive website very quickly then you would be hard pressed to find anything to get the job quite as quickly as Startup, even if you used Divi from Elegant Themes which is my current favourite.

Using eM Client with Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts

eM Client

A few weeks ago I blogged about moving from Microsoft Outlook (and an Exchange account) to eM Client using Google’s productivity tools Gmail, Calendar and Contacts. These are my reflections on using eM Client for the last month or so, having been a faithful Outlook user for the last 14 years.

Why move?

My reasons for moving were three-fold:

  1. Simplify—I was using at least three email accounts, as well as trying to synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts with Google. This way I could keep everything in one place.
  2. Share—I needed a more robust way of sharing my calendar with (my wife) Jane, and she uses Gmail as her primary account, so it made sense to move.
  3. Cost—Though they do offer a terrific service, buying an Exchange account from Simply Mail Services was costing me about £70 per year. I could put that money to better use.

My hesitations in moving were two-fold:

  1. Email address—I really wanted to keep my [email protected] email address, and for email to send as that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that was just vanity. So long as all mail sent that address was forwarded to me it didn’t really matter what email address I was sending from; besides some people were emailing me there anyway. (As it is I can configure Gmail to send as my own domain, I just haven’t done it yet.)
  2. Email client—I’ve enjoyed using Outlook because I like having everything in the same place: email, calendar, contacts and tasks. I’ve adapted my workflow around this set up. and it works for me. I knew that Outlook wasn’t suitable but didn’t know of an alternative. eM Client proved to be a near perfect replacement.

Setup

Setting up eM Client was so simple. Upon installing the application I was asked to enter my account details. I typed in my Gmail email address and password, and eM Client did the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.
Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

The free version of eM Client allows you to connect a maximum of two accounts, the pro version (£29.95 GBP) allows unlimited accounts. I’m currently on the free version but I intend to upgrade to pro at some point, simply to support the company.

IMAP

During the setup eM Client alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t enabled my Gmail account to use IMAP. This was easy to do within Gmail settings.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.
IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP enables two-way communication between eM Client and Gmail, so any changes made in one client are immediately made in the others. This makes it really useful when trying to access your email from multiple devices, e.g. Windows and Android.

Once connected to my Gmail account eM Client took only a few minutes to download my email messages, calendar and contacts data.

I also connected my Facebook account which allows me to use eM Client as a chat client, and to update contact details and avatars from Facebook.

Review of eM Client

The following is a summary of my experience of using eM Client over the last few weeks.

Bear in mind that I am using eM Client only for Email, Calendar and Contacts. eM Client also supports Tasks and what it calls Widgets, which are plugins like an RSS reader.

I discovered, quite by accident, that if you right-click the left-hand panel you can decide which modules to display.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.
Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

This also affects the shortcut keys to quickly navigate to these modules. With Tasks and Widgets removed these are now, for me:

  • Ctrl + F1 Mail
  • Ctrl + F2 Calendar
  • Ctrl + F3 Contacts

The full list of shortcut keys can be viewed at Tools > Settings > General > Shortcuts.

Using Gmail with eM Client

Email view within eM Client. Four columns, from the left: folders, messages, message details, chat
Email view within eM Client

The email client looked very similar to Outlook, albeit with a simpler, cleaner look. The screen shows four columns (from the left):

  1. Folders (Gmail labels)
  2. Mail received
  3. Message (full text of the currently selected message)
  4. Sidebar (showing contact details, agenda or chat)

Themes

eM Client comes with a number of built-in themes. I’m using a light blue theme called Arctic which is very clean looking. It clearly distinguishes the different areas of the screen: menu bar, mail folders, message, sidebar allowing me to get on and work undistracted.

Folders and labels

One feature I used a lot in Outlook mail was folders. Gmail doesn’t use folders. Instead it uses labels.

For many years I have used the following primary folders:

  • Action
  • Archive
  • Hold
  • Mailing lists
  • Projects
  • Waiting for

I tend to create sub-folders for Projects and Waiting for to make it easier to find emails. Then when the project is finished, or the item I’m waiting for (e.g. Amazon – CD order) has arrived I destroy the folder and either delete the emails or move them into the Archive folder.

In Gmail email can be categorised with more than one label. I have decided to use only one label per email. This matches the way that I used folders in Outlook. I find it simpler this way.

Something else I had to learn about Gmail is that “Inbox” is a label too. If an email doesn’t have the “Inbox” label then it is regarded as archived and appears under the “All Mail” label.

In eM Client Gmail labels appear as folders. So if I drag and drop an email into a folder in eM Client, it applies that label in the Gmail web client.

Once I understood these subtle differences between Outlook and Gmail I was happy to explore setting up rules to automatically filter my email.

Rules

Something that I relied on a lot within Outlook were rules. I created a lot of rules to filter all my regular newsletter and mailing list emails into a sub-folder called ‘Mailing lists’ (who would have thought?).

I’ve found this prevents my inbox from clogging up with ‘noise’, enabling me to see the more important emails from friends and family.

Gmail calls these rules filters. But unlike in Outlook, you cannot set up these filters within the eM Client. They must be done using the Gmail web interface.

Initially I thought that I might find this a bother, but in reality I’ve just accepted that this is the way it is. And besides, for each newsletter I only need to do it once.

It has also allowed me to review.all the mail I’m getting and decide whether I should cancel the subscription or not.

Filtering an email within Gmail.
Filtering an email within Gmail.

I tend to use the same rules for each message:

  • Skip the Inbox (Archive it).
  • Apply the label: Gareth/Mailing lists.
  • Never send it to Spam.
  • Also apply filter to X matching conversations.

Categories

As well as labels/folders, eM Client supports categories.

List of categories for email.
List of categories for email.

There are four contexts in which categories can be used: contacts, emails, calendar events or tasks. Categories can be unique to a context or shared across any of the four contexts.

You may set the context when editing the category.

Computer category is used only for emails.
When editing a category you may choose where it is used.

I have still to finalise the categories, but I tend to use these only for grouping items within my “Action” folder/label. These are emails that I have identified that I need to do something with: reply to, read, or follow a link to download something, for example.

Standard replies

Something I used quite a lot in Outlook was “Quick Parts” where you could store standard replies to certain questions. I used these a lot for replying about Psion repairs or certain mahjong questions.

eM Client doesn’t support this feature. However, you can create a number of custom signatures and using the “Insert signature on caret position” option to can use this to insert these standard replies into your text. And unlike Outlook 2010 you may add more than one signature to an email.

If your reply is longer then you could opt to use templates. As far as I can see, however, you cannot insert template text into a reply. You may only use it to create a new email. So if you don’t mind a bit of copying and pasting then you may choose to do this. Otherwise, stick with the signature workaround.

Spam

When I used Outlook with a standard (POP3) account I needed an add-in to filter out spam emails; I used Cloudmark DesktopOne, which I found excellent.

After I moved to Microsoft Exchange I paid extra for a Postini server-side spam filter to be activated on my account, which I found gobbled up more than a few genuine mailing list emails.

Having moved to Gmail, only a few rogue messages have got through to my inbox, and I’ve had maybe only four or five false positives.

Right-clicking the Junk E-mail folder in eM Client allows me to empty my Gmail junk mail.

Conclusion

On the whole I have been able to use eM Client in exactly the same way that I used Outlook. In other words, my familiar workflow hasn’t really been upset.

The only real difference is needing to go to Gmail itself to set up mail filters.

I am actually surprised at how easily and seamlessly I’ve made the transition from Outlook to eM Client, after 14 years of using the former, but I suspect that reflects the quality and flexibility of the software.

Using Google Calendar with Em Client

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.
eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

As sharing calendars was one of the drivers for moving from Outlook I reckoned that this had better work seamlessly. And I’m delighted to report that it is.

I have five Google calendars that I display:

  1. My default calendar (green)
  2. Children (orange)
  3. Home (grey)
  4. Jane (violet)
  5. Scottish Episcopal Church saints days (rose)

Colours

Regardless of the device (web, eM Client, or Android) Jane and I have synchronised the colours of the calendars. So my calendar is always green, Jane’s is always violet, children is always orange, etc. That way we don’t need to think twice about what we’re looking at.

eM Client draws its colours from Google Calendar itself. On our Android devices (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini) you have to set the colours on the device itself.

Categories

I used to use a lot of colours and categories when using the Outlook calendar to denote different activities, e.g. coding, writing documentation, meeting in the office, meeting in St Andrews, meeting/conference outwith St Andrews, etc.

I expected to miss that when I moved to a mono-colour calendar but again I’ve surprised myself. The clarity offered by colour equals person has been really valuable.

I don’t use any categories now for events. eM Client comes with four built-in (vacation, must attend, needs preparation, birthday) but I don’t use any of them; you cannot delete these four.

Sharing calendars

Another decision we made was to give each other full read and write access to each other’s diaries. That way we can add appointments directly to each other’s calendar without having to go through the rigmarole of inviting each other to events.

Calendar for home events

Another innovation was to add a generic, shared calendar for home events such as which recycling bins go out and when, gas boiler service dates, car tax, etc.

I chose grey for that calendar which makes it neutral but helps it stand out enough to notice it.

Google Calendar’s recurring event feature was ideal for this calendar.

Performance

Like eM Client’s handling of Gmail, the lag between adding an event within eM Client and it appearing either on the Google Calendar web interface or on our Android device is minimal. It is almost instant.

While eM Client displays an Agenda view in the sidebar, I have not found myself using it and tend to leave the sidebar set to viewing Facebook chat contacts.

Tasks and calendar

One feature of Outlook that I used a lot was to drag and drop tasks from the sidebar onto the calendar.As it’s not possible to do this in eM Client I am now using Todoist to manage my tasks.

I now either manage the dates within Todoist itself or simply copy and paste tasks into my calendar. It’s a little overhead but really not that much.

Conclusion

As this was one of the primary functions that we needed to get right (sharing multiple calendars) I have been quite delighted not only with what Google Calendar itself offers but also how eM Client handles the management of these calendars.

Unlike Gmail there is very little that I have needed to do using the Google Calendar web interface, once we got the calendars created, shared and set to the right colours.

Using Google Contacts with eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client
Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts is yet another area where eM Client excels.

When I used Outlook (either standalone or connected to Exchange) I would every now and then import my Outlook contacts into Google in the vain hope of keeping them backed-up and synchronised. It was an overhead that I didn’t need and it’s been quite a relief, actually, to have them all in one place for a change.

Views

There are five ways to view your contacts, as well as a couple of ways to filter them. The five views are:

  1. Phone list
  2. By Company
  3. By Location
  4. Custom View (which by default shows you every contact card field in a spreadsheet-like table)
  5. Business cards

The default view is Business cards, and this is generally the view that I prefer. Each tile shows you the person’s name, email address, telephone numbers and/or company:

Contact card showing my details
Contact card showing my details

The coloured blocks on the left-hand side represent categories.

Categories

In Outlook I used to categorize almost all my contacts, but I used the Company field for that. I used this field to record where I met the person, e.g. National Youth Choir of Great Britain, School, Family, etc. I can use the “By Company” view to display contacts in this way; although it displays them by default as First name, Surname.

I have also created a number of key categories, e.g. colleagues, family, home-related contacts (plumber, joiner, etc.) so that I can filter my contacts by these categories.

These categories also come in handy when viewing contacts on my Android phone.

One thing that I discovered was that for contacts to appear in Google Contacts they seem to need to be categorized as “My Contacts”,

The other way to filter, of course, is by search. I would have found it handy if the search updated the list as you were typing but you have to hit Enter before the search begins.

Navigating contacts

Using a combination of categories, search and the scroll bar you can quickly locate the contact you are looking for.

Something I really miss from Outlook 2010, however, is the A-Z list down the right-hand side of the contacts cards view. This allowed you to very quickly navigate within your contact cards. I do hope eM Client adds this to a future version.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.
A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

Contact photographs

One neat feature, once you’ve connected your Facebook account to eM Client is the ability to have your contacts’ profile photographs imported into Google Contacts.

That obviously requires your contacts to be using Facebook, and for them to have used the email address that you have for them to be registered in their Facebook account.

Duplicates and conflicts

Occasionally things can go wrong. When I used a Psion to sync with Outlook on two PCs (home and work) I was forever needing to remove duplicate entries. This isn’t as big a problem with eM Client as it is in Outlook.

eM Client comes with its own built-in duplicate remover (Tools > Deduplicator…).

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.
eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

I found it pretty effective, to be honest. It found a number of duplicates and where possible it combined information very effectively and deleted the rest.

A couple of times while updating contact cards I found that I made too many changes in a short space of time. In these cases eM Client asked me which data I wanted to keep and which I wanted to overwrite: local or remote.

Conclusion

Another win. To be honest, I can’t see myself needing to use the Google Contacts web interface terribly much. More or less everything is handled very nicely within eM Client.

Final observations

All in all, I am pretty delighted with eM Client. It does exactly what I needL which is to manage Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts in one place. I really couldn’t ask for much more.

Sure there are a few niggles, like the lack of A-Z navigation in Contacts, and needing to set Filters in the Gmail web interface, but really these are minor issues.

If you are looking for an Outlook replacement (and eM Client does support Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Outlook, as well as other standard POP3 and IMAP email accounts etc.) then I can thoroughly and warmly recommend eM Client.

If I was to score it for its integration with Google services then I would need to give it a full 5/5.