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Hands-on: Gentle Alarm for Android is a beautiful way to wake up

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When I listed Gentle Alarm as one of my top Android apps, I promised a more in-depth review -- and here it is! Here are the key features of the app that's been (successfully!) waking me up every morning for the past several weeks.

Profiles

One of the best concepts in Gentle Alarm is that not all alarms are exactly alike. The Profiles screen lets you set up individual alarm "types". As you can see, each profile has its own complete set of options: You can select whether or not you'd like to have a pre-alarm (more on these later), the duration of the alarm, the initial and final volume, the alarm tone (or MP3 tune), and more.

Gentle Alarm for Android



Separating the profiles from the actual alarms is brilliant, because it lets me quickly set up a "nap" alarm (i.e, a one-time alarm) using one of my existing profiles, so it takes mere seconds.

Pre-alarms

When we sleep, we constantly shift between REM and deep sleep. When we're woken up from the middle of a deep-sleep phase, we feel groggy and out-of-it. But if we happen to wake up while in REM, we're not as groggy – it's easier to focus and start the day.

Some applications try to "catch" the light sleep phase by monitoring your movement patterns – you're supposed to put the phone on your bed, and it uses its accelerometer to sense when you're moving and when you're lying still. This is problematic for people who don't sleep alone, or even if you just have a cat who likes to jump on and off the bed during the night (and early morning).

Instead of trying to figure out your motion patterns, Gentle Alarm takes a statistical approach: near the end of the night, light sleep and deep sleep alternate every 30 minutes or so. This is where the pre-alarm feature comes in: 30 minutes before the time you're supposed to wake up, Gentle Alarm rings a very quiet alarm. The theory is that if you're in the lighter stages of sleep, this should be enough to wake you up, and you'll feel refreshed. But if you're in the middle of "deep sleep", you'll sleep right through the alarm, and the scheduled alarm would wake you up.

Quite surprisingly, this works. Gentle Alarm is very configurable, so you can adjust the volume of the pre-alarm, make it fade in, adjust its duration, and adjust how prematurely it fires. There's even a "calibration" feature that lets you hold the phone in a specific distance while playing the alarm and helps you figure out the optimal volume. This feature is not for everyone: many people savor the end of the night, and even if you do use it, you'd might have to re-calibrate it after a few days if you discover the pre-alarm constantly wakes you up (or fails to wake you up at all). But for me, it's quite effective.

Adjustable snoozing

The snooze button is a key feature for every alarm application, and Gentle Alarm does not disappoint. Not only can you set a maximum number of snoozes (after which the alarm refuses to let you snooze), you can also have the snooze duration become gradually shorter with each snooze. So you can start off with a 10-minute snooze, have a 5-minute snooze next, and then a 2-minute snooze. Very nice.

Alarm quick-change

Let's say I usually wake up at 7am on Mondays; but tomorrow is different for some reason, and I want to wake up at 9am. Rather than cancel the planned alarm and set up a new one, Gentle Alarm lets me quick-change just the active alarm – I can delay tomorrow's alarm by some time, or make it ring earlier.

CAPTCHA on wake-up

This is my favorite feature. It has happened to me in the past that I shut off the alarm, groggily thinking, "I'm awake, I'm awake", and then promptly fell back asleep. This feature makes sure this never happens: whenever I shut off the alarm, it plays a random pattern of "lights" on a 16-button grid. Once it's done playing the pattern, I need to repeat the same exact pattern from memory.

True to form, this feature is very configurable. The default is a 3-button sequence at a rather slow pace. I went for 5 buttons at a moderate pace, and it works every time. It's actually a fun way to start off my morning.

Night mode

Gentle Alarm has a beautiful night mode. It basically shows the current time in a huge font, which is configurable, and you can reduce its size using the volume buttons. It can also put the device into flight mode so that no calls interrupt you.

When you slide your finger down the left side of the device screen, the brightness changes. But the best part is that it interfaces with Sleep Bot for tracking the amount of sleep you get: as soon as you switch into night mode, it "punches in", and when you wake up in the morning it punches back out. This makes for a very effortless way to track your sleep patterns.

Support

There's a support forum, which I've used a couple of times without mentioning I'm a blogger, of course. The forum is moderated – the developer must approve every thread and comment before it shows up. I received a very polite and informative response from the developer every time. This is actually worth mentioning because the app isn't free, and it's nice to see the developer that's so responsive.

Evaluation period

Rather than just offer a set evaluation period or a feature-limited version, the developer found a creative solution: The free version has all of the options of the paid version, but simply doesn't work on Wednesdays. So if Wednesday happens to be your day off, you're in luck.

Bottom line

Gentle Alarm is a very powerful app, and I've only just scratched the surface in this review. It costs $2.73, which is a great price for all that it offers; take it for a spin and see for yourself.

Tags: alarm, alarm clock, AlarmClock, android, apps, Gentle Alarm, GentleAlarm, handson, review, utilities

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