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TUAW Sleep-off: Ambiance vs. aSleep vs. your Mac

Everybody needs to sleep, and more than just a few hours each night. It's not just a matter of being in a foul mood all day; there are some pretty serious physiological effects of sleep deprivation. Since you tend to learn the most when you do things incorrectly, I know plenty about lost sleep. Anything that helps my insomnia is worth checking into, so I've spent some time looking at ways my Mac and my iPhone might help me lay down, and stay down. I took a look at the iPhone first; there are more than a few apps available which make me drowsy, but only two that I could find which do it intentionally: aSleep and Ambiance. Fluff your pillow and read on to see how they stack up against each other and a few desktop applications.

On the iPhone

Ambiance

Ambiance ($.99 at the App Store) is a very basic noise generator with some surprisingly good sounds. It has 14 options with a variety of purposes, from drowning out external noise to helping relax a racing mind. Out of the 14, a few of the sounds are downright unusable for me, but a couple of sounds are potentially quite useful.

The clock sound is strangely chunky and bass-heavy. The monotony, though, has definite application in situations where the steadier the beat, the easier it is to focus on it. It's especially apropos for me, as I grew up in a house with a father whose hobbies included building clocks. Actually, most of the recorded sounds on these apps brought back memories from some period in my life, and I have to assume that the majority of users would find something they can relate to (and therefore derive some type of sleep-inducing comfort).

Also notably good in Ambiance are the creek sound (make sure you use the facilities before turning that one on), the rain and the wind. While I had my doubts about the cricket sounds, Ambiance did well with that one. It wouldn't be my first choice, but it's surprisingly non-abrasive. Notable for the wrong reasons are the overly hissy Blue Noise, the thundering Waterfall and the impure White Noise with the strange audio artifacts. The Pink and Violet noises are spot on.

The interface is simple: dial up a sound and press the "Noise!" button. Most of the sounds do pretty well on just the iPhone speakers, which makes Ambiance great for hotel stays.

aSleep

aSleep (also $.99) has fewer sounds available (6), but about the same number of really good ones. It lacks all of the signal noises, but has the expected Rain, Wind, Beach and Forest. The beach sounds, by the way, feature frequent and highly disturbing seagull cries which would make a better alarm clock than a meditation background.

In addition to the nature sounds, it has two fairly musical options: Relax and Meditation. If you're really into this kind of thing, you might be disappointed with the lack of complexity in the arrangements. Personally, the slightly arrhythmic pattern of soothing sounds that Relax offers has been my best bet out of all of the options, but it would drive me nuts if it played all night, filling my dreams with visions of a pre-haircut Yanni. That's why the timer feature in aSleep gives it an advantage over Ambiance (see the next section for a workaround). You just set the length of the countdown, start it, turn off the screen (if you want to), and head for wonderland. When it hits zero, it turns off.

I have a couple of very minor issues with the interface in aSleep which don't really hinder its usage. Let's just say that I prefer the more streamlined interface of Ambiance. Slightly more important than the UI for me is the fact that the timer defaults to 15 hours and 1 minute every time I load the app. I will never, ever be able to sleep for 15 hours and 1 minute, so it would be nice if it remembered the last interval I used, making the assumption that it generally takes me about the same amount of time to fall asleep. Final note: it would be nice if the sound faded before cutting off when on the timer.

DIY

Obviously, with both of these apps, you're buying the sounds, since they offer no major features above and beyond the DIY approach:

  1. Procure the sounds and get them into iTunes. At 99 cents, the sounds that come with the above apps are a pretty good deal. You can get 1 good track for that price on iTunes, but I'd want more than one. You could always record your own, of course, which could lead to a lot of creative possibilities.
  2. Start the track on your iPod touch/iPhone and go back to the Home Screen.
  3. Go into the Clock app and open the timer. Change "When Timer Ends" to "Sleep iPod." This trick also works with Ambiance as a make-your-own timer.
  4. You have the added benefit of waking up to music by using the alarm clock with a custom ring tone.

On your computer

pzizz

If you happen to sleep in the same room as a Mac or have a decent remote speaker setup, there are some great options for sleep timers and alarms. pzizz offers modules for day and night, the former for napping and the latter for falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up. Pzizz is relatively unique among the desktop apps, as it generates its own audio and incorporates voice, binaural beats and music. The voice bit is a little creepy, consisting of a hypnotic voiceover which sounds a bit like a William Shatner album, but it seems to work. pzizz is $29.95/ea for the daytime and night time modules, or $49.95 for the bundle. It's worth looking into for the aspiring sleep aficionado, and there's a free demo available with a 5 minute time limit.

Awaken

I got Awaken as part of a bundle, but after having used it for a while, I would probably pay the full $12.95 for it. It's a full-featured, iTunes-linked sleep timer and alarm clock with great, adjustable fade-outs and fade-ins of both audio and screen brightness. It works with your Apple Remote, has an egg timer mode for quick naps, and can wake your Mac automatically, allowing it to sleep through the night. That last one is especially handy for laptop users. Awaken also has a background mode, allowing alarms to function when the application isn't running.

Aurora

Aurora has most of the same features as Awaken and adds a few of its own niceties. I'm not currently using it, but I'm intrigued by the fact that it supports my EyeTV and could let me wake up to weather reports and such. Wow, that would tick my wife off, given that I get up about 3 hours earlier than she does. Aurora also adds DVD and QuickTime movie support for the sleep timer, which is nice, but visual stimulation right before bedtime is one of the major causes of sleep troubles. Aurora comes in at about double the cost of Awaken (EUR 15 = $23.41 USD, for now), with only a couple of extra features. There are a few other alarm clock options, most not as feature-rich but many free if you just need a simple alarm. If you're in the mood for something novel, you might also take a look at the $8 Sleep Blaster, which allows you to shut it off by yelling at it, among other interesting features.

Still awake?

So, what to use, and where? If I'm at home, where I have my MacBook Pro near the bed with a good set of speakers, I choose Awaken. I can fall asleep to a carefully sequenced musical soundtrack (not randomized or I get all excited to see what's next), and wake up to a more invigorating lineup. I love having a 30 minute fadeout at night, and a 10 minute fade-in come morning. If you feel like splurging (or you're tired enough to be uninhibited by price), pzizz looks like an intriguing solution. My demo was nice, but I'm sticking with what I have for now.

If you happen to have a job where it's understood that your productivity is enhanced by the occasional nap, or you choose to spend your lunch break napping at your desk, aSleep's "Relax" mode might work as well for you as it does me.

The generated noise sounds in Ambiance are also great for concentrating in noisy environments. If you need a "cone of silence" while trying to work at the coffeehouse or the airport, a little Violet Noise would probably fit the bill. I bought both of the iPhone apps for testing, but I've found that having the combination is worthwhile, each having different areas of expertise.

Your Mac and/or your iPhone can obviously be of assistance in a quest for good, sound sleep. It would be nice if a small investment were a perfect cure, of course, but you've got diet, exercise and all kinds of environmental concerns to be aware of. wikiHow has some good tips. Here's wishing you the best of luck, and may tonight's sleep be as refreshing, regenerative and restorative as an infomercial anti-aging cream only wishes it was.

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