iPad Gems: 15 Apps, Including AIM, eBay, Epicurious, NewsRack, NPR + TweetDeck
Welcome to this week’s first edition of iPad Gems. Today, we’re taking very brief looks at another big collection of recently-released iPad applications that might be of interest to some readers, including a handful of titles that we really liked, and others that we wanted to like but didn’t.
Like last week’s Gems, we’re not rating any of these 15 titles for the time being, but are instead focusing on how well they take advantage of the iPad, and what they offer to users. Read on for all the details.
The single biggest positive of AOL’s AIM for iPad (Free) is right there between the parentheses: there’s no charge for this instant messaging program, which supports multiple AIM, MobileMe and .Mac accounts, and expands upon the previously-released iPhone version with custom wallpapers, a three-pane landscape mode with separate columns for your buddy list, active IM sessions, and one current discussion.
Additionally, AIM flips the entire screen to show you your “Lifestream,” including Facebook and Twitter updates from your friends, Digg and Flickr content, and more. But like all instant messaging programs, AIM is forced by iPhone OS 3.2 to hog the entire screen, relying on push notifications when it’s not otherwise filling your display with largely empty or not useful columns. It doesn’t help that AIM—now in its second release for the iPad—is still buggy, sometimes continuing to feed you notifications even after you’ve closed it. Until and unless Apple reveals a better form of multitasking for the iPad, IM solutions such as this should consider integrating Apple’s Safari browser in the background; the idea of filling a complete computer screen with nothing but IM content is just not compelling.
We like the idea behind Chillingo’s BoardBox ($4)—play chess, checkers, reversi, go, xiangqi, tic-tac-toe and other board games on an attractively-rendered board with nice-looking pieces—but the game’s nearly non-existent artificial intelligence spoils what could otherwise be an awesome collection of titles under one app’s roof. Instead of providing both a single- and double-player experience, BoardBox sets up its boards for two people to play against one another, then does little but keep score and automate the removal of pieces where appropriate.
Need help with the rules? It pulls up Wikipedia entries; it also offers a collection of different variations on chess rules, go, xiangqi and checkers, for those who want to try something different, and saves games in progress for those who want to switch boards and then return. With full competitive AI, BoardBox would be easy to love; as-is, it’s only as good as the person you find to play against.
The original release of Bowls for the iPhone was only half-fulfilling, providing two-at-a-time access to images of Tibetan Singing Bowls that can be touched and rubbed to make hauntingly beautiful sound effects. Good news: Oceanhouse Media’s new Bowls HD - Authentic Tibetan Singing Bowls ($4) fixes that problem, providing a single, static screen with 13 different instruments at once, but it needlessly doubles the price of the first app and sells it separately, despite adding little more to the experience than reusing the same art and sounds. Consequentially, you wind up staring at a flat drawing that only becomes a little more interesting when you rub the bowls, which glow to indicate that they’re being touched; the sound is, again, the big draw here. We love the concept, and the gentle humming of the bowls is relaxing, but this really should have been a universal app at the prior price.
Junecloud’s $2 Delivery Status Touch was the best package-tracking program we tested for the iPhone; now the company has released a universal iPad/iPhone/iPod touch version under the same Delivery Status Touch name for $5. The higher price tag is a bummer, but the upgrade is free for prior users, and adds a very nice iPad interface, dividing the landscape screen into a list of scheduled deliveries, a map, and a pane for tracking details; portrait mode turns the list of deliveries into a popover window.
Once again, Junecloud’s biggest selling points are the app’s ability to grab tracking details from all sorts of accounts—Apple Store, Amazon, international carriers, and all the big U.S. delivery companies—and sync them with a free Mac Dashboard widget. Other than the price, Delivery Status Touch is a really nice app, and we continue to think Apple should offer similar functionality as an integrated iPhone OS feature.
Apart from its grating audio—a series of chirps—there’s a lot to like about Distant Suns for the iPad: Astronomy for the Rest of Us ($10). Currently solely an iPad application with iPhone support coming in the future, this application is essentially a star and planetary map that can be moved around in real time, then overlapped with illustrations of constellations, Hubble photos of planets and star formations, and data ranging from names to descriptive text.
It lets you see and learn about 88 different constellations, rendered with different types of stars and brightness levels as you prefer, plus over 130,000 total stars, and enables you to use the iPad’s compass—when it’s working, that is—to actually point your device at whatever should be visible in the sky. Though the data inside Distant Suns is actually really impressive, and its rendering engine is pretty smooth, its art and sounds could really use some upgrades to bring it past its geeky 1980s roots. It’s otherwise a pretty amazing demonstration of how the iPad can enable educators to move past books and desktop computers into tools that students can carry around and use in the real world.
If Apple’s Notes application struck you as being too underpowered, you might be amused by 2Boxes Studio’s Easy Agenda ($3), an iPad-only app that tries to move the concept forward, and half-succeeds. Three different tools let you prepare calendar-like lists of events, typewritten notes, and finger-drawn sketches, then send e-mails containing each type of content. The sketches are fairly primitive, using a single-width, marker-thick line rather than smooth curves or thinner pen/pencil-like drawing, but they’re there. And that’s pretty much it; none of the features feels especially well-thought out, and the interface is non-intuitive, but it’s a start.
The question of whether or not web-based businesses need to release iPad-optimized applications becomes murkier with the release of eBay for iPad (Free), an application distinct from the company’s earlier iPhone clients. eBay turns the screen into a heavily photographic listing browser, letting you search the site’s auctions with a pill-shaped search box, then refining results by category, price, and advanced criteria; in a neat touch, a yellow 2009-vintage iPhone/iPod touch slider lets you constrain prices for the listings by just pulling left and right to set minimum and maximum dollar amounts. There’s also a My eBay pulldown, allowing you to view tracked items, and of course, you can bid on items from the application. At least, some of them.
Try to buy a Buy It Now listing and you’ll be told that items requiring immediate payment can’t be purchased through the application, then guided to “complete this transaction on your main eBay site.” What’s the point of a shopping app when you can’t buy whatever you see? It’s there, evidently, primarily as an advertisement for eBay’s Daily Deals and other featured merchandise; until eBay equips it with the tools to do all the same transactions available through its web site, you’d be better off just Safariing to your purchases, instead.
If there’s any single eye-candy application for the iPad that could sell the device to amateur, part-time, and possibly even professional chefs, it’s Epicurious Recipes & Shopping List (Free), an update to the Epicurious iPhone application. Unlike so many other developers, Conde Nast makes outstanding use of the iPad’s screen, dividing the landscape display into a left bar with useful “featured” collections of recipes in buttons, with search and saved favorites above them, and a shopping list button below, then uses the majority of the screen to display tabbed folder-like lists of recipes that can be sorted by relevance, photos, user ratings, date, or alphabetical order.
The photos are commonly gorgeous, recipes presented with perfect clarity as lists with separate directions, and an e-mail export option formats everything to send to friends or different devices. Epicurious is bound to become a fixture on every iPad that will spend time in a kitchen, and guarantees a role for Apple’s tablets outside the living room, bedroom, and office.
As an iPad-only application, Hurricane HD ($4) is the sort of software we can’t quite understand paying for: a big hurricane map with a blog-like collection of “News” postings, information on past storms, and animated satellite photographs of storm activity for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. While we suppose that meteorologists or students might enjoy looking up old tracking data for past storms, with nice enough map overlays that zoom in to show you wind speeds and pressure, the average user can get most of the data he or she needs for free from Weather.com, news networks, or the NOAA web site. This is a fine aggregator, but niche at best in appeal.
It pains us to say it, but iZen Garden for iPad ($6) feels like a big disappointment. We previously loved the original iPhone version, which enables users to select stones, plants, and other objects to arrange into a simple, rake-ready Japanese zen garden, but developer Random Ideas’ “sequel” was a bit of a cash-in, and now there’s a less intuitive iPad version. Objects and fonts that worked pretty well on the iPhone and iPod touch now look fuzzy on the iPad’s higher-resolution display, and trying to do simple rescaling and moving gestures sometimes seemed to move things into places where we didn’t want them. Eventually, we got the hang of placing objects, rotating them, and scaling them, but not before going through a couple of frustrating, decidedly un-zen sessions of trial and error. The audio here is still fantastically relaxing, but this app really would benefit from a price cut, a rethinking of the user interface, and improved graphics.
We loved Newsstand for the iPhone, and though it recently changed names to become NewsRack ($5), this universal iPhone/iPod/iPad application remains our favorite RSS newsreader for the iPad. As before, it saves a list of RSS feeds you create, or synchronizes them from Google Reader, enabling you to maintain one big list of read and unread articles across multiple devices. The browsing interface is very simple: NewsRack splits the screen into an articles pane and a display pane, enabling you to see article summaries before clicking an arrow button to load the full original web page in a very usable crop of the Safari browser, and providing the ability to look at articles from all of your sources at once, or just an individual site that interests you. There’s nothing sexy in NewsRack—even its prior widescreen cover view is completely gone, unfortunately—but it works so well that we now rely upon it every day. Hooks for Twittering and Facebooking the stories you like are much appreciated, but it would be great if NewsRack could store content on its own without relying upon the use of a separate app or login.
Apart from the arguably necessary ads, which include screen-filling images and speaker-absorbing audio, it’s easy to be impressed with NPR for iPad (Free), the official application of National Public Radio. NPR provides three scrolling streams of content: “news,” “arts & life,” and “music,” the latter one with a guaranteed mix of audio and text content, and the former two with text and possibly audio as well. Click on any speaker icon and you can listen to the network’s professionally developed and almost invariably smart combinations of narrative and music; select a story and you get a scrollable, readable text article with a photograph and sharing links out to Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail.
You can also build saved playlists of audio you want to hear—including on-demand content from individual NPR programs and live stations—which continue to play for as long as you’re within the application, which could easily be hours given that the app also includes a topics browser that includes access to numerous other articles that aren’t featured on the main page. Apart from video, which is absent in the NPR app, there’s a ton to read, see, and hear here; it’s a highly compelling app that lacks only for the big main page, search feature, broader archives, and podcast content of the NPR web page.
If it wasn’t for the iPad’s lack of Apple’s Voice Memos application, the very idea of a mediocre, iPhone UI-based recording application that fills the screen with “HD” blackness would be offensive. But that’s what Decipher Media’s Recorder HD ($1) offers for a buck: it just drops an iPhone UI-based recorder in the center of the screen, storing a list of .CAF format files that can be e-mailed and played back with QuickTime. Editing? Nope. Quality settings? Nope. It’s a step back from what Apple has given away for free with iPhones and iPods for a couple of years now. Buy it only if you’re desperate.
We’re fans of the computer version of TweetDeck, which provides quick, multi-column, and multi-account access to Twitter timelines, mentions, and direct messages; even the stripped-down iPhone and iPod touch version contained some neat interface tricks. Now there’s an iPad one called TweetDeck for iPad (Free) that includes most of the original’s tricks, once again at no charge to the user.
Though its UI is once again a little different, this time calling up a notepad and big on-screen keyboard as overlays on top of its Twitter columns, it provides a lot of control over the columns you see, lets you flick to scroll through columns stored off-screen, and includes tools to let you share photos, compress URLs, and geotag your tweets. Until Twitter releases its official application for the iPad, which will apparently be based on the Tweetie applications for Mac and iPhone, we’ll likely be using this app—if TweetDeck continues to evolve, who knows, it may even wind up being the best on this platform.
The iPhone release of Zagat to Go ‘09 was an expensive bummer—a $10 app that depended on an Internet connection for its less than universally impressive restaurant and hotel listings—but Handmark has kept at it, adding the ability to search some of its listings while offline, an online-only reservation booker for some restaurants via OpenTable, and now an iPad-formatted browser. Now known solely as Zagat to Go, the app remains at its prior $10 price, but now uses the full iPad screen to display a map with simple locale details, or a more detailed screen with hours, dress code, features, accolates, and rating scores.
Zagat to Go’s database remains extremely limited outside of major metro areas, and in some cases quite poor even within certain big cities, but at least the iPad app provides a better overall user experience than the original iPhone version did. We still prefer the listings of services such as Urbanspoon and Yelp, but those looking for the summarized and editorially vetted survey data of Zagat will find it pleasantly displayed here.
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