iPad Gems: 20 New iPad Book, Magazine, Comic, Video + Reference Apps
Welcome to our first non-gaming edition of iPad Gems! As with our earlier game-focused version, we’re looking at a huge collection of different iPad apps today—20, actually—giving each a relatively brief overview. Unlike the prior column, we’re looking here at apps that either didn’t exist on the iPhone and iPod touch, or never previously received attention in one of our Gems pieces before.
They’re unrated for the time being, but our descriptions make clear whether they’re worthy of your time and attention.
Apart from the app’s unfortunately vertical-only browser design, ABC Player (Free) from ABC Digital is an exciting piece of software—arguably the single biggest step forward in media consumption on an Apple device in a long time. ABC Player is a full-fledged browser and streaming video player for the ABC television network’s TV programs, enabling you to watch complete episodes of 24 different shows, including present and prior seasons.
Not surprisingly, ABC presents the videos with commercial interruptions and gives you only limited control over fast-forwarding and rewinding, but the commercials aren’t horribly long, and links are provided to buy the commercial-free episodes from iTunes. The crystal clear, high-definition videos can be viewed in vertical or wide format, but the browser to search the network’s content is only available when the iPad is vertical. Overall, this player strikes a very good balance between offering on-demand access to a great library of content and advertising support for that content.
Multieducator’s American Dreams - Speeches and Documents in US History HD ($3) is not going to win any awards for interface design—between the background textures, fonts, and utterly plain presentations of text documents, sometimes without proper formatting, it feels somewhat slopped together. But the concept is an exceptionally powerful demonstration of the iPad’s potential as a learning tool: you can read, hear, and sometimes see the full inaugural addresses of every U.S. President, read the Constitution, key pieces of legislation and Supreme Court decisions, and watch videos from critical moments in American history.
To the extent that it’s built on publicly available content, American Dreams mightn’t seem like a big step forward, but there’s something far more compelling about being able to hear Teddy Roosevelt speak or watch John Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis address than merely reading about them. A superior UI and even more content would help apps like this to become necessities for history students.
These three widescreen-only apps also run on iPhone and iPod touch hardware, but Oceanhouse Media’s The Cat In The Hat, Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! ($3 each) are three classic books that find their most impressive canvasses on the iPad. In each case, Oceanhouse Media has taken a colorful, art-driven title that would not have worked in Apple’s iBooks application—as it currently is, at least—and gives it everything from full voice narration, played automatically or turned off as you wish, to animated and spoken word pop-ups that identify the pictures on the screen. On the iPad, the experiences are better than having the actual books on hand, with pages rendered at roughly the original size and full resolution, while the iPod touch and iPhone pages are identical in visuals, sonics, and interactivity, only smaller. Though none of these electronic books dramatically evolves Dr. Seuss’s content beyond its original 2-D form, they all do as good a job of presenting what was originally there as any parent could hope for.
It’s another example of an application that doesn’t make phenomenal use of the iPad’s user interface potential—the version we tested even had some minor graphics bugs—but Pocket Cocktails’ new Coffee Table Cocktails - HD Bartender & Drink Recipes ($5) is the first step in how cookbooks and recipe guides will eventually evolve on this platform. Coffee Table Cocktails is essentially a 241-page printed coffee table book that was laid out with beautiful photography, nice fonts, and fine graphic design, then given a simple set of buttons and tabs that can be used to skip through and search the content in either book or hyperlinked form.
A page on Irish Cream Shooters, for instance, will link to a section on how to layer drinks, and a list of all of the drinks in the book is both searchable and clickable to bring you to the correct page of the original layout. Though the interface is not as impressively designed as the book underneath it, and any number of drinks you can think of have been left out—other apps we’ve reviewed for the iPhone and iPod touch, such as Cocktails+, are more comprehensive—what’s here is a nice enough start to converting conventional books into iPad format, with attractive high-resolution photography as its strongest point.
They’re the ugliest and arguably most unappealing apps we’ve yet seen on the iPad: Carnation Software’s Code Sleuth and PCode Sleuth ($1 each) are barely iPad-formatted versions of iPod touch and iPhone apps that contain common operating system error messages for computers—Code Sleuth for Macs, PCode Sleuth for PCs—with the ability to search for solutions on the web. The apps contain virtually no information of their own, directing you to visit Apple’s, Microsoft’s, or Google’s web sites for assistance, in each case using Google as a front end for the search. Save your $1 and just enter the same search terms into Google yourself.
By comparison, Say It & Mail It Pro ($4) isn’t a wonderful app, but it works. It provides a unified interface for recording voice memos, attaching photographs and/or GPS location data, and then mailing the content to yourself or to friends—even groups of friends at the same time, with one button press. The app’s interface is plain and its functionality is little more than tying together several of the iPad’s well-established features, but it works, and gives the iPad back the missing recording interface that the iPod touch and iPhone now include.
Day-n-Night ($2) is described by developer Austin-Soft as “a beautiful clock, reminiscent of the clocks seen on the walls of airports,” showing you a flat map of the Earth with the area currently in darkness appearing in shadow with lights to represent cities with electricity, and everything else appearing in tones of blue, green, yellow, and white. You can modestly zoom in on the map with pinch gestures, and change the size of the clock that rolls at the bottom of the screen. It’s boring, not particularly attractive, and not the sort of way we’d want to fill an iPad’s screen, but if you like “clocks seen on the walls of airports,” knock yourself out.
At the core of Without Software’s The Dossier ($5) is a truly great idea: you want to be able to do nice things for your friends and family, while keeping simple records of what those nice things are and were. The Dossier provides you with the equivalent of an expanded Contacts page, complete with the ability to write down each person’s clothing sizes—for gifting—plus take notes on individual details that might be important to a given person, such as their preferences, cards they’ve sent you or received, and so on. There’s even a “recent tweets” feature that shows what the person’s been saying online, and you can reorganize your page for each person to make the nice graphic elements flow together as you prefer. Though we could imagine these features being more useful tied directly into the iPad’s Contacts feature, Apple hasn’t expanded Contacts enough to embrace the power of social networking or gifting, and The Dossier takes a nice first step towards doing this; more cool-looking fields and links to stores to actually gift things such as cards and clothes would surely improve this app.
As kids, we might have been somewhat amused by Joerg Piringer’s Gravity Clock ($1), which displays an analog or digital clock on screen, then lets it crumble and rebuild with every passing second. There’s nothing more to it than what the pictures and text here show, save to mention that the numbers fade in and out rather than building to the point where they fill the display. It also works on the iPhone and iPod touch; we wouldn’t rush to buy it for either a small- or large-screened device.
As fans of Marvel’s comic books for the past 30 years, the release of the iPad and iPhone application Marvel Comics (Free) is bittersweet to us, simultaneously inspiring awe and fear. Comic books, like magazines, newspapers, and other graphically intense books, deserve a common bookstore on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch that enables readers to go to one application and one store, purchase content, and be able to carry it across both portable devices and computers. Instead, Apple has provided no common solution, leaving publishing companies to create individual applications, sell their content separately, and offer different formats, pricing, and compatibility from platform to platform.
The result is Marvel Comics, a beautiful front end for buying and reading the limited number of Marvel’s comic books that are available for download, generally for $2 per issue. There are plenty of X-Men, Avengers, and Spider-Man comics, plus Iron Man, Hulk, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four issues—nearly anything that was turned into a movie is here, minus the Punisher. Marvel’s high-resolution conversions of its comics are gorgeous, popping with color and detail that looks better here than on paper, and can be zoomed into, played panel by panel, or scaled out of with great effect. Six comics are currently available as free samples of the larger library, interestingly showing both how short and sometimes poorly illustrated some issues may be, and how compelling the art in others can become. But even as fans—ones who would love to catch up on years of backissues—we can’t imagine investing dollars in either individual issues, or in content for an application that has no portability to other devices. Buying comics and graphic novels on the iPad will make sense when Apple provides the overarching framework; until then, apps such as this will merely show the potential of highly visual content on this format.
We don’t envy the task that newspaper companies such as The New York Times are faced with at this point in time, as they’re forced to repeatedly re-conceptualize their digital presence for different devices and evolving reader expectations—often simultaneously. Today alone, the paper operates a web site, an iPhone app, Kindle content, a slimmed-down “Times Skimmer” web browser, and now this iPad app called NYT Editors’ Choice (Free), another stripped-down version of the web site with formatting and fonts that look even more like the original newspaper.
If you enjoy the newspaper so much that you need to see it substantially replicated in iPad form, Editors’ Choice will impress you to the extent of its boundaries; the app only includes a fraction of the site’s daily content, segregated into News, Business, Technology, Opinion, and Features tabs, without any search or archive features. Ads interrupt the articles and the browsing; individual articles look great, but have layout and their own formatting problems. It’s enough to make a reader want to just go and use the Times’ web site, which despite all the hype over iPad apps offers more and better content.
If there was any launch app that appeared to have game-changing potential on the iPad, Popular Science + ($5) would have been it. Bonnier has re-imagined the magazine as a new hybrid of eye-popping photography with parallax-scrolling text and a revolutionary new structure—think of the Table of Contents as a horizontal line of choices, and individual articles as starting with titles on that line, scrolling vertically deeper as you read each one. You get the benefits of great fonts and layouts without the stiffness of conventionally flat, two-dimensional pages; pictures and background art change automatically as you scroll at your own pace through the text. It’s a very cool technology demo, but ultimately proves more difficult to navigate at the article-to-article level than it needs to be, and the idea of shelling out $5 per short issue while having to endure full-screen ads is off-putting at best. As with the Marvel Comics application, Popular Science + points the way towards a better future for printed color publications, but its appeal is significantly liimited by the absence of an overarching archival scheme to store and play back issues on computers and other devices.
By comparison with some of the other digital conversions of books we’ve seen on the iPad, Molly Davis’s Rawr! Monsters ($4) lacks for a few things: structure, interface, and audiovisual spark. The idea is cute: you can scroll page by page through 50 different monsters, any and all of which could easily form the basis of an interesting story for kids. But instead, you’re presented with a one-paragraph description of the character—that’s it—without voice, animation, or much of a story. Some kids might enjoy seeing the pictures and reading the few words, but what’s here strikes us as too little to justify a $4 asking price, and not an especially good use of the iPad hardware.
Readdle’s Readdle Docs for iPad ($5) is, in essence, a more powerful PDF viewer than the one that’s built into the iPad, plus a file manager and attachment-saving web browser. Using its reskinned version of Safari, you can visit a site with PDFs—even ones in ZIP archives—and save both the PDFs and site pages directly to the iPad, choosing between HTML and Web Archive formats for the saved pages.
Readdle successfully saved, unzipped, and opened our 2010 iPod + iPhone Buyers’ Guide, for instance, displaying the document more or less properly on screen, adding simple search capabilities, and preserving it in a large documents folder for later access. It’s also able to store other types of attachments for transfer to or from a Mac or PC over Wi-Fi, amongst other transferring features. There are some rough edges in the app, but considering the gulf that currently exists between the iPad’s versions of Safari and PDF preview relative to a computer’s web browser and PDF software—a gulf that will apparently remain until at least Fall of this year—many users will find these tools worth adding to the iPad’s arsenal.
Over 1,000 pieces of classical sheet music, stored within a single application that’s searchable and sortable by title, composer, and instrumentation—that’s Sheets ($3) from QD Ideas. With pieces from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart, Schumann, and Vivaldi amongst many other composers, the sheets can be modestly scaled downwards and upwards, and scrolled through with a single-finger swipe; that’s pretty much it. Adding the ability to import additional pieces—and a store where they could be purchased—might help this app to become useful for those whose repertoires span more than just classical music.
Without diving too deep into the appeal of Corporate Smalltalk Consulting’s WikiServerPro ($5), we’ll note that it’s an interesting concept: a web browser-based tool that enables you to build your own Wiki—a hyperlinked collection of pages containing useful information—and then serve the web pages from the iPad, an iPod touch, iPhone, or desktop computer. While there’s a big question mark, arguably an exclamation mark (no!), as to whether people will actually want to devote these powerful little touchscreen devices to such a menial task, the app’s ability to let you compose Wiki content isn’t bad; doing the same thing in a web browser would be just as easy, and lack mostly for this app’s hosting tools.
Our initial feeling about WordBook XL ($3) was “unnecessary;” this app is TranCreative Software’s packaging of a dictionary and thesaurus with a Safari-based search engine to look up words, which frankly can be done just fine using Safari. But as we played with WordBook XL a little more, and saw the convenience of its one-touch links to Wikipedia, Answers.com, and Google, its internal linkage to additional words and synonyms, and its ability to offer three different voice pronunciations of words—one from a recorded voice, two from text-to-speech engines—its appeal broadened. Then we found the “Solver,” which lets you fill in letters you do know for ones that may be missing from a crossword puzzle, and its anagram generator, and note storage capabilities for words, and we genuinely liked what was here. iPads have dictionary features for free, aided even more by the new word lookup interface Apple developed for iBooks, but this app has a few little tricks up its sleeve that make it worthwhile, too.
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