New York Times Crossword app gets its appeal across (and down)
At a Glance
Well into her 90s, my grandmother did her crossword puzzle every day—in ink. I haven’t quite gotten to that level yet, but in the last several months, I’ve managed to do a pretty good job of sticking with the free New York Times Crossword app. And, thanks to a recent update, doing my daily puzzle has gotten easier than ever.
Let’s put it right out there: For crosswords, the Times is the gold standard. There are other good sources, to be sure, and if you’re looking to do puzzles from them, you can’t go wrong with Stand Alone’s excellent Crosswords (which even includes support for some Times Premium subscribers, as well as older, free Times puzzles). But if it’s the daily Times puzzle you want, this app is the way to go.
While the Times app is a free download and provides a two-week trial of all that there is to offer, getting the most out of the program requires a subscription. You can subscribe right inside the app and there are a variety of plans, including $17 a year, $10 for six months, or $4 for a month.
The new iOS 7-inspired design is an improvement over the old version—especially its unnecessarily skeuomorphic menu. Stark white with blue highlights, the app relies on a more illustrative approach than its predecessor. It’s also been somewhat simplified, with a main screen prompting you to do today’s puzzle, and quick access to the app’s downloadable puzzle packs as well as a calendar of past puzzles. (And, so far anyway, fewer annoying pop-up ads.)
New customization options, available via the gear icon while you’re doing a puzzle, are also welcome additions: You can choose to skip filled squares within a word, and whether to jump back to the first blank or the next clue when you select a word. Clue text size can also be enlarged, which folks with vision challenges will probably appreciate, and you can opt to turn off the built-in clock if it’s too much pressure. (Me, I like the pressure.)
Another big improvement is that the app now clearly displays the name of the Sunday puzzle in the menu bar, whereas before it was only available by tapping through several buttons. That can be a big help when trying to solve the Sunday puzzle, since the title itself is often a clue to the puzzle's theme.
But probably the best addition is the at-long-last appearance of sync. When you log in to your New York Times account from the app, it’ll let you sync your progress not only between the iOS client on multiple devices—your iPad and iPhone, say—but also with the Times’s Web-based crossword app. That corrects one of the biggest shortcomings of the old app, where you might get halfway through a puzzle on your iPad, and then have to start all over again should you decide you need to switch to your iPhone. I will note that the sync was a little bit ... particular in my tests: If you’ve finished the puzzle on your iPhone but haven’t downloaded it on your iPad, it won’t show that puzzle as complete on the tablet until you download it and open it.
I do have one major complaint about the new update: Upon downloading it, I found that all the records of my previous puzzles were wiped clean, including current progress for puzzles I was working on. Not that I spend much time revisiting older puzzles, but I had a certain sense of satisfaction having maintained a pretty good history of solutions. My hope is that the new version takes a more permanent approach to those—and perhaps even integrates some form of statistics to help us puzzle solvers improve our craft.
There are some smaller glitches too, including a few of the special keyboard keys that don’t quite look as sharp as they should (specifically the keys for moving between letters and clues, as well as the delete key), and I miss the option to clear the current clue instead of only being able to clear the entire puzzle. (Believe it or not, I actually don’t want to wipe out all my progress that frequently.)
But aside from those details, the update gets a thumbs up. Or, to put it in terms crossword puzzle aficionados might appreciate more, a nine-letter word for “extremely good.”