Deciding the Twitter app to pin on my Phone's Start Screen

Sunday, 10 March 2013

I've been using Rowi for approaching two years now. I was using the official Twitter app (henceforth referred to as Twitter) before then, and until its recent update I had not considered switching back. Rowi had never given me a reason to seek alternatives, and were it not for the buzz, I would have probably ignored the new Twitter update. My first impressions were quite positive. For once, the hype appeared justified, and I was pleased to have quenched my curiosity. But being in a relationship with any entity, whether it's physical or virtual, for two happy years naturally induces loyalty. And so I wasn't going to drop Rowi the moment another Twitter app suddenly became relevant. I needed to see if Twitter was better than Rowi at doing the things I want my Twitter mobile client to do. If it is, then Rowi and I would need to talk.

Interface


Rowi's text pivot


Twitter's icon pivot

Both use a pivot, but Twitter replaces the text labels with icons. It's certainly a fresh aesthetic approach and there are practical benefits too - you don't need to swipe to reach the third and fourth sections on Twitter as they're always one tap away. That's great if those two sections (profile and search) were ones I frequently accessed. They're not. 

Rowi's home screen has three sections meaning all its sections are also one swipe away. The difference being a horizontal left swipe takes you to the third and last section i.e. it's not visible by default and so you must rely on a gesture to show it. If an app is going to use a text pivot, three sections is definitely the sweet spot and what developers should be aiming for; any more can become convoluted. Having said that, Rowi does also allow you to configure your home screen, in case your sweet tooth demands additional sections, such as the results of a specific search that you regularly check. Although you can save searches on Twitter, they're inexplicably accessible from your profile (and not search itself), and to exacerbate matters you need to scroll to the absolute bottom of your profile to see a link to them. It was certainly an effort pinpointing their location.

Rowi's theme (dark or light) is linked to your phone's, ensuring a seamless transition when you switch to the app. This is the attention to detail that embodies an app that is designed specifically for Windows Phone. Except for email and productivity apps, I've usually found it slightly jarring whenever I change to an app whose theme doesn't respect my system preference. That continues to be the case with Twitter. 

Performance

Despite being on Windows Phone 7.5, both apps performed reasonably well. Rowi wins it by a hair though, as loading times were slightly faster. As both apps are optimised for Windows Phone 8, I however expect the difference to be even less noticeable there. Even so, the optimisation maturity Rowi has attained must still be commended. This goes to show if you're serious about Windows Phone, you can compete on a technical level against a behemoth from any platform. Even if there's only two of you. Furthermore, the performance gains I've witnessed Rowi accomplish in the last two years confirm optimisation of third-party Windows Phone apps is feasible but has worryingly not been prioritised as much as it should by most of the developer community.

Timeline 


Twitter and Rowi's timelines

The same number of full tweets are visible at a time on both apps, but it's less clear to distinguish between tweets and retweets on Rowi. The name of your follower who retweeted is below the name of the person who the original tweet was from. The Twitter app shows this information above the retweeted tweet, and I much prefer that. Context is provided before the tweet, resulting in less confusion when you come across a tweet from someone you don't follow. 

Rowi makes accessing the content a tweet links to seamless. For example, images are displayed in-line and are one tap away. The Twitter app however shows images as textual links (you actually need to examine the link to determine it's to an image), and requires a tap to open the tweet to see the image; if you want to pinch and zoom though, that's another tap. 

Links, on the other hand, require two taps to access on both apps. Like with images, the Twitter app needs you to open the tweet to tap on the link from there. Tap on a tweet in Rowi though and you get a context menu; one of the options is to open the link. I don't think this action is immediately clear though, as its combination of a right-facing arrow icon and "go to" label can be misunderstood. Especially when there's a similar open tweet action labelled "view" with an icon more representative of a body of text (i.e. link) rather than a 140 character tweet. A little detail but an important one nonetheless when it comes to polish. 

Although it's two taps to open a link on Rowi, it's one less tap to return to your timeline. The same applies to replying and retweeting. And, this quickly becomes noticeable. I was becoming more and more annoyed every time I was returned to a tweet after I finished performing any action on a tweet in Twitter. The convenience provided by a tweet's context menu on Rowi cannot be understated; if there's one feature that tips the scale in Rowi's favour, then this is it. Conversely, pull-to-refresh on Twitter is a gesture I would encourage Rowi to adopt; it's unquestionably a more satisfying and natural way to refresh any chronological list of items than tapping a refresh icon. 


Rowi's tweet's context menu

Finally, accessing someone's profile on Rowi could be easier. Rowi's context menu becomes active even if you tap on a tweeter's picture. I would have expected that to take me to their profile, like on Twitter. Moreover, the context menu action to access a user's profile isn't visible by default and needs to be swiped to. I don't think it needs to be as the four actions visible by default are contextually more relevant, but that is my point. When I tap on someone's picture, I am interested in them and not the tweet; the target area for a tweet is wide enough to make this concession. It's an inconsistency too, as tapping on a tweeter's picture/username when viewing an individual tweet does take you to their profile. 

Composing a New Tweet 

The experience in both is generally excellent, but Twitter makes mentioning others easier and faster. Firstly, its app bar has an "@" icon. This may seem unnecessary, but it's a deceitfully clever addition. See, the "@" key isn't visible by default on the Windows Phone keyboard in either Rowi or Twitter (you need to tap on the "&123" key to see it). I don't understand why it's not been pulled out. If Windows Phone doesn't allow third-party apps to use an alternative stock keyboard, then Microsoft should be embarrassed. Whereas if it's an oversight from Rowi and Twitter's developers, then they should both be embarrassed. In any case, Twitter have offered an alternative (and actually faster) way to input "@". Once tapped, this is where Twitter shines - its auto-complete exhibits superior intelligence and flexibility. Rowi only returns suggestions for users whose username start with the character(s) inputted. Twitter, on the other hand, suggests users whose username or full name contain the character sequence. Might not seem like a big deal, but in practice this makes mentioning others incredibly efficient. 


Twitter and Rowi's @ auto-completion

Mentions

Twitter shows not only any @ mentions, but also any other form of interaction. I suspect Rowi's inability to do so is due to missing APIs. If correct, I don't understand why Twitter, the company, doesn't make this specific type of information accessible to third-party apps. Actually, maybe I do. Unfair advantage but by no means a deal breaker for Rowi. Mostly an inconvenience, as it means needing to occasionally access official Twitter to see a chronological list of interaction on your tweets and profile.

Direct Messaging 

On occasion, I'd like to keep the content of an @ reply private and DM the user instead. Twitter clearly doesn't like it when I do, judging by how they bury away this functionality. I need to go to my profile (not where I'd expect to find this action) and tap on a mysterious and randomly located envelope icon. From there, I can see my past DM's and send a new one. Although Rowi doesn't exactly prioritise this feature in its interface, it's certainly more accessible (send a DM via the home screen's app bar, and view messages from its messages pivot).

Switching Profiles

As someone with two Twitter accounts, I'm regularly changing profiles. When I created my second Twitter account, I had no clue how to add it in Rowi. When I finally tapped on the account's name in the top left, it was more in hope than expectation. I don't understand how it's not possible to do so from either the app bar or settings, like on Twitter. That's where I'd expect to find this action and Twitter doesn't disappoint in this regard. Having said that, once I knew where to switch accounts from in Rowi, I preferred it to Twitter as it required one less tap. May not seem like much, but when you do it as often as I do, it's a significant tap saved.

Settings

The difference between Rowi and Twitter is best encapsulated by examining their settings. One allows you to customise the experience, whereas the other decides there's no need. Choice may lead to increased complexity in Rowi, but the majority, if not all, of the customisation options are welcome (no matter how sensible the defaults are). There are far too many to mention. One technical feat worth highlighting however is the ability to sync Rowi on Windows Phone with Rowi on Windows 8 and MetroTwit on the PC. Unfortunately, it's of no interest to me as I use neither of those apps. But for someone who does, it's a compelling feature. (looks like The Nest collaboration between Rowi and MetroTwit was not further pursued, but, as an alternative, Rowi continues to support TweetMarker enabling it to be synced with any other Twitter client that uses the technology). 

The only criticism I have of Rowi's breadth of settings is of their dispersed nature. For example, account management or notification customisation are both accessed from outside of the settings. Additionally, Rowi has for some reason prioritised the about page over settings. Firstly, its app bar labels it as "about / settings". That makes the settings option, which you're more likely going to look for, harder to find. If that's unnecessary, then it's absurd how the settings pivot is the fifth and final section from there. Guys, give the users what they need first (i.e. settings) and show them what you want last (i.e. about, feedback and credits).


There are many things I like about Twitter, such as pull-to-refresh or the auto-complete when mentioning others in a tweet. And then there are things I need Twitter for, such as seeing interactions beyond @ mentions or editing my profile. But as much as I prefer and need Twitter in certain respects, I'm going to stick with Rowi. In-line images on your timeline and that context menu make the experience on Rowi an inherently more fluid affair. These features allow its timeline to be an independent gateway to actions and linked content. Twitter's timeline, on the other hand, depends on a tweet to be opened for its story to be completed or responded to, causing friction at too frequent intervals. Furthermore, the myriad of settings Rowi offers allows you to finetune your experience in a meaningful way. People use Twitter, the service, differently and Rowi's developers get that. They've designed a Twitter app elastic enough to effortlessly accomodate the service's entire spectrum of users.

When I first got a Windows Phone, I looked specifically for the official Twitter app. Two years ago, it wasn't good enough and reflected badly on the OS. Today, this is no longer a concern and that's why I'm pleased the update happened even though I won't be using it. I'm confident once a new Windows Phone user installs Twitter, they're less likely to seek third-party alternatives like I did. And that's why I'm a little worried for Rowi. They can compete comfortably with Twitter at the moment and I consider it to offer a superior experience even. But my feeling is to remain relevant on the Windows Phone ecosystem, they'll need to continue improving. The good news is there are already signs indicating Rowi's developers, Hidden Pineapple, are aware of this need to iterate. Its developers are now concentrating on Rowi more and judging by their Twitter accountsomething big is on its way.

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