Some time ago I was working on a RubyMotion app and was called over to look at a colleague’s screen only to find an amazing visual.
Just as Firefox jumped on to the scene with a 3D view of a web page, the team at RevealApp presented to me an exploded view of one of our RubyMotion iOS apps. 3D rotation of many wired frame borders and the ability to click through the views to review settings was amazing. Since then a few new players have come along so here’s a quick recap of how you might see what’s going on under the hood.
As a very light weight entrant to the field, SugarCube is a RubyMotion gem that provides a lot of syntactic sugar and utility methods. It includes a nice little command called ‘tree’. This was one of the first mechanisms I ever used in gaining insight into how my app was being put together and is still a bit of a reflex when digging around in the console.
This means of seeing the UI structure in code might be a little harder to interpret at first but it’s nice that without any other frameworks or apps you can see what’s going on.
So to sum it up, it’s a console tool with a super easy install and requiring no external software to review the results. This is a great place to start debugging your views.
2: Motion Xray
Stepping up the visual feedback is Motion Xray. This is the only gem I haven’t personally used but I’ve included it as it’s purpose is to get insight into the current view of the app, in the app itself.
This brings a great level of portability as there’s no need for bridging between external software and internal frameworks. It’s all just in the app. It does make me a little nervous that to view my view code I’m changing my view code but I can see the niche that this plugin aims to fill.
3: Frank and Symbiote
This one really surprised me. Working with Frank is something we’ve been dabbling with for years and it’s definitely growing on me as I feel the need to gain more confidence in how my user interface is behaving. In the past I’ve used the calabash console to help me understand how to access view components for my tests but I recently stumbled on Symbiote which is part of Frank.
Frank opens up a communications gateway for sending tests to the device or simulator and Symbiote piggy backs this getting a full view of what the interface looks like on demand. This in itself is impressive but it then renders that out to a webpage with an interactive console.
This tool is tailored towards making writing tests easier but I loved that it was a means of seeing my app state with just a browser on the side. My experience with it so far has been limited but there is definite potential.
Check out this article (Inspect the State of Your Running iOS App’s UI With Symbiote – Pete Hodgson) for a really great overview of this.
Frank is very easy to install, and so in turn was Symbiote.
4: Reveal App
This is where the excitement began and at the fully fledged highly visual editor end of the spectrum. A separate app is run to do all the viewing and editing. A framework gets included in your app to open up a bridge for communication (much like Frank).
I found in the early beta stages when I was heavily using this, there were occasional connection issues. The framework broadcasts its presence via Bonjour so you should see your device or simulator appear in the list of possible connections. This type of connection process (when it worked) was nice and simple when moving between device and simulator as there were no config files or settings to worry about.
Once in the app with your screen wire framed and ready for editing, the ability to see and change things is phenomenal. Anyone who is used to tweaking the visuals of a web page at a browser console will feel right at home with this kind of tool. Nudging UI by pixels, changing colouring, messing with opacity. All of these are ready to go.
The only downside to this product has been it’s final price. The licensing is not cheap but so far in my experience this is by far the most powerful tool of its kind.
5: Spark Inspector
After loving Reveal App I took a quick moment to see what else was out in this space and was stunned to find another contender. Spark Inspector at this time feels like a lighter weight version of Reveal. It’s not as fully loaded with features and modifiable fields but it does have a lot of the key parts like a very visual 2D and 3D representation of your app.
I found that the cocoapod installed without any issues, the connections worked first time and generally this was actually a little easier to get going than my early RevealApp experience. The main area of weakness at this time is that not everything is as easy to access and edit as I found in Reveal. It does feel like you can get a little out of sync with the remote UI and it has a few more general quirks as you modify values.
The major redeeming factor to this is it’s price. At time of writing Reveal cost a bit over four times the price of Spark Inspector so if you find Reveal is out of your budgetary league, this may be an alternative.
6: iOS Hierarchy Viewer
As a last minute entrant I was really impressed to stumble over this git repo that looks to be doing things a lot like Symbiote using a web page as the external viewing tool. Looking over the Readme it feels like the install will be harder to get through than Spark or Reveal but there’s a cocoapod and it turned out to be rather painless.
The UI is raw in appearance but comprehensive in details. It feels very much like an insight into the state of the UI rather than the editable side that Reveal gives you.
One surprised was the Core Data addition which with an additional line of code gives you a quick view of the state of your data. Having recently been using cdq I tested this and it worked just as expected showing me a table of my data. This is a very interesting addition putting that little bit more at your finger tips but the lack of edit on the views does make this app more about insight than nudging visuals into place.
It’s wonderful to see such a diverse set of tools becoming available to developers. Between a RubyMotion console and the many tools on offer, a developer can get a quick understanding of the visual architecture they are working within and even nudge it in the right direction before making a final change. Given we at times rely on the default apple controls and views it’s also good to understand exactly why things are placed where they are or how many views really do make up a button.
As I was writing this article I found this stack overflow thread covering this topic and picking up pretty much all of the above mentioned tools so if you are looking to hear how some others have found these tools, this may be a place to start.
Also as one closing pro-tip – don’t run too many of these together as not surprisingly my app got a little unstable when spinning up the simulator and multiple apps all tried to start up servers and broadcast messages. Also keep in mind that running the specs instance of a RubyMotion app might clash with your main app if you are swapping back and forth. If things start to misbehave you might need to restart your simulator or close down apps that are in the background.
If you know of any other apps that haven’t been discussed, let us know.