|The final submissions are in for the Ultimate Coder Challenge.
Lee, John, George & Suresh, Sagar, Shailesh and Andreas have submitted their works, their creations, their results of endless sleepless nights and possibly a fair bit of cursing and we, the judges, have the task of picking the apps to pieces with a small pair of tweezers. Metaphorically.
The original task for the contestants is to "create apps that take full advantage of the performance advances, graphic excellence, touch and sensor technologies of the latest Ultrabook™ computers". That's fairly broad, and I would add that a critical component of the challenge is to showcase the Ultrabook.
The Ultrabook is a new device, the love-child of an ultra-light laptop and a tablet. The operating system of choice, and in fact the only one to currently take full advantage of the hardware is Windows 8, and Windows 8 fully reflects the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature of the unit. It's a laptop. Though if you ignore the keyboard and hold it awkwardly it's a tablet. Yet it's a PC. A fast, light, energy efficient, peripherally rich and accommodating computer that does everything you expect from a laptop, and oh so more.
To showcase an Ultrabook, then, one needs to showcase the operating system to allow the operating system to showcase the Ultrabook, and when I think of something being showcased I expect to see something unexpected, maybe contrived, but above all, something entertaining and possibly educational.
So I want to be entertained and educated by these applications. I want to run the applications and, from them, understand what an Ultrabook is.
LoveHearts is a social message game with a couple of games within the game. Lee went to extraordinary lengths to port his OpenGL based framework to DirectX, and succeeded, give or take having to downgrade a video driver. His application takes advantage of the touchscreen, light sensor, NFC, the compass and features such as notifications.
It's a technical marvel. It's a triumph of sheer bloody mindedness over common sense. It's a monument to perseverance. It is not, however, an application that makes any sense to me. You swipe the wrapper, you get a token, and a small piece of candy appears. You touch that (for wont of anything else to do) and it floats to the top of the screen. Touch an item at the top of the screen various actions can be taken such as sending a message, reading (and sending) jokes and poems, or playing a game. There is a bug in the app and sometimes, no matter what item up top I press, the train game appears which, after trying a dozen times and watching Lee's video, I still have no idea how to play. No matter what I do the train careens forward with a mind of its own.
The idea behind Shufflr is an interesting one. You are presented with a series of videos potentially of interest to you. The Ultrabook twist is that it would be touchscreen enabled and would use the tilt sensors to shuffle backwards and forwards between videos. Add to it the potential for transferring information via NFC, using the ambient light sensor to make it easier on the eyes, and maybe WiDi to throw the video onto your TV and you have a neat app.
In judging this application I came across several serious glitches: launching it would show the launch screen, then I'd be thrown back onto the Start screen. Launch again and it would tell me it was logging me in, and then I'm thrown out again. Rinse, repeat, and eventually after a few restarts I'm in. The first screen provides an overlay with the various gestures. This is incredibly important, and the #1 issue I have is that once you dismiss this screen you are unable to find it again. I was, frankly, lost trying to control the app. Shuffling the videos works fine, though pinch to zoom doesn't. Shaking works to reshuffle, but care must be taken when holding the Ultrabook on your lap because leaning even slightly will trigger a video swap. Too bad if you were enjoying the show. The two modes - DailyFix and Flipside - could be highlighted far more than they currently are. This, to me, is a failing of minimalist design: it took me a good half dozen uses of the app to realise that the " DailyFix FlipSide " words at the top left were actually links that, when clicked, changed the app mode.
One final niggle: when viewing the start screen, Shufflr displays video caps on the live tile. However, it doesn't brand the live tile with the Shufflr name so, among the dozens of tiles I have on my start screen, it's extremely difficult to spot the Shufflr tile.
BioIQ is a simple teaching game where you label the parts of, well, parts. A plant cell, the heart, eye and other internal gooey bits. It keeps its live tile updated but its primary nod to the Ultrabook is its touchscreen capability. For this app, that's really all that makes sense (unless they wanted to make it really hard and force you to slide the labels to the organs using tilt). It's an app that, when you use it, you don't even realise you're using a touchscreen laptop. That's not a bad thing.
Wind up football is an extremely simple, graphics heavy game with the rules "grab the ball, keep away from the mobs". Instructions are minimal, but as you play around you realise you can touch one of your team members on the screen, draw a line to that unit's destination and in a manner of speaking direct the play. However, the goal seems to be to avoid the other team while, at the same time, beating the daylights out of the other team by tapping on an icon when one of your units gets close enough. It uses touch, it uses the GPU, and uses the communications APIs to enable multiplayer action. It's extremely polished and solid, but the jury is still out for me as to whether this is the application that I would fire up first when showing off a new Ultrabook to a friend.
MoneyBags is an expense tracking application that focuses on being seriously productive rather than seriously fun. My initial experience with it was great - it's the only entry that's self packaged with an installer - but on activating the application with the supplied product key the application is stalled on the activation screen. Restarting got me past this, and then I was presented with a basic tour - always a nice touch.
The application takes advantage of the touchscreen, power states, GPU and the horsepower under the hood. Again, however, it's not an app that I would showcase as a prime example of what makes an ultrabook exciting. It does, however, have a trick up its sleeve: NFC communication so you can transfer transactions from your smartphone to the application. I am, however, one of the faceless mass of iPhone users who must put up with an NFC free device so I'm unable to test this capability.
A second issue that struck me was that, even though the application was touch screen enabled, it was most definitely not touch screen optimised. On the left hand side is a scrollable list of categories. There is a scrollbar, but one would expect that simply swiping on the list would scroll it. Unfortunately you need to touch and move the scrollbar which, on my screen, is about 2mm wide - significantly smaller than my big fat thumb. Scrolling often resulted in nothing happening, or worse, one of the categories being accidentally opened. Further touch issues were evident in the lower nav bar: the home and settings icons were way too small to be easily touched, and the other option labels, while bigger, were still on the uncomfortably small side. This is, unfortunately, an app better suited to a mouse than a touchscreen.
The language trainer, which I thought was a web-based HTML5 application, is in fact a Metro app written in HTML5. A standard PowerShell based install and a Start screen tile, and in you go. I chose the French lesson, since in Canada we're meant to be fluent in French and English, but evidently my French is not up to par with "rue" not being the correct translation of "street" and none of "siège, banc, or selle" being enough to satisfy "seat". You only get one try, and there are no hints, so it's a little frustrating to work out what it thinks the answer should be. The app uses touch screen input, but, as far as I can tell, no other Ultrabook features.
Judging finished this week and the points will be tallied and a winner announced. Good luck to all, and I take my hat of to all participants for dedicating their time and energy to entertaining us judges.
The Code Project | Co-founder
Microsoft C++ MVP