Welcome to today’s second collection of iPhone Gems, which we’ve split up into three sections to deal with a bunch of applications that we’ve been testing ahead of the release of our 2010 iPod + iPhone Buyers’ Guide. Inside, you’ll find brief reviews of the ethnic restaurant menu assistant Global Eater, the iPhone-to-fax machine program scanR, and three different types of Internet Radio applications: NPR News, Pocket Tunes Radio, and vTuner Radio.
These apps don’t have a lot in common with one another, other than that they all demonstrate just how incredibly handy an iPhone or iPod touch can be as an information resource: one app lets you browse foods from seven different cuisines, another lets you send faxes internationally—without per-call charges—directly from the iPhone, and the other three offer news and music content in audio form, plus more. Read on for all the details.
Having already looked at similar “what’s this menu item?” apps for individual ethnic cuisines—Chinese and Japanese—the idea of Global Eater ($1) from Bay Apps is even more appealing: download a single application, open it, and you can look up unfamiliar menu items from a variety of different cuisines rather than just one. Global Eater provides lists of Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, and Thai foods, and lets you see the English and foreign-language names of various dishes in list form; the Asian dishes are also printed in their native alphabets. If the quick list description isn’t enough, you can click on any dish for a description of what’s inside.
While we really liked the concept of Global Eater, the app lacks a bit in the polish and depth departments. Go to Indian, for instance, and click on Baingan—“eggplant”—and the definition that comes up is “egglant,” spelled wrong and without any sort of additional explanation. Search Thai for the common enough wonderful appetizer Mee Krob and you won’t find it; Chinese for Char Siu Bao and you’ll find Cha Sui Bow. Descriptions vary from brief and not useful to a few sentences of somewhat illuminating but not great text. None of the items has photos, the phonetics in some cases aren’t quite what they need to be, and the length of the lists of items range from adequate to inadequate by cuisine; some wouldn’t even decode the likely offerings at a neighborhood restaurant, while others are better populated. For now, the standalone lookup apps do a better job of representing their individual cuisines, but Global Eater offers a good start, and with some added work will be worth recommending. iLounge Rating: B-.
When we see an app with a price tag that’s higher than, say, $10, we immediately ask whether there’s anything that could possibly justify whatever that number is. In the case of scanR Business Center ($25) from scanR, the answer is a big “yes:” in addition to turning your iPhone’s camera into a PDF creator and e-mailer, it includes unlimited international fax sending directly from the phone—without any charge for placing calls, or the need to actually hear those screeching fax tones yourself. Best suited to users of the iPhone 3GS with its autofocusing camera, scanR snaps photographs of documents, syncs them to the Adobe-backed company’s server, and then enables you to distribute them via e-mail or fax wherever you want.
In our tests, scanR’s results were really quite good, considering the limitations of the cameras and fax technologies it’s dealing with. Even when it doesn’t have a perfectly flat image to start with, it produces very readable faxes; with flat images, it creates extremely clear black and white renditions with dithered photos and text that can look closer to a photocopy than a traditional fax. Results, of course, depend on the quality of the photo you snap, and though the app provides an estimate of that quality (“Quality: 85”), we saw little difference between its assessment of three different documents that did vary in readability. When we used the fax command, scanR communicated with its server to send the faxes, and they began to arrive within only a minute or three of the initial request; our first sample fax was transmitted perfectly the first time, while a subsequent attempt had some fax machine connection issues—at which end we’re not sure—but did work on the third try.
Such is the nature of faxing; at least scanR called back until the image was successfully transmitted. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the $25 asking price is reasonable for the ability to create PDFs and faxes directly from your iPhone, but in our view, the results were good enough to merit our recommendation; on other platforms, scanR charges recurring fees for its faxing services, versus the unlimited service here. The pay once, fax as much as you want model strikes us as being superior, and very convenient for people who need to transform documents into faxes on the go. iLounge Rating: B+.
Having previously reviewed a number of different Internet Radio applications for the iPhone and iPod touch, we wanted to briefly revisit the category given the appearance of a couple of noteworthy alternatives in recent months: Pocket Tunes Radio ($7) from NormSoft, and vTuner Radio ($2) from appsolute GmbH.
Of the two apps, vTuner Radio struck us as more impressive: it is an affordable, streamlined Internet Radio tuner that has 7,000 stations sorted into 56 genres, and then with numerous countries, each station actually vetted by the developer to determine its reliability, sound quality, streaming format and bitrate. In an exception to the otherwise colorful, text and icon-based interface, which we really enjoyed using, all of this information is presented to you in icons and fonts that are a little too small, but let you know before you tune whether you’re about to try and grab an AAC or MP3 stream at 24K or 256Kbps. Higher bitrate stations sounded truly phenomenal coming through the iPhone or iPod touch; as good as listening to music stored directly on the device.
More importantly, we didn’t come across the sorts of streaming errors we’ve had with other applications that pull content from all but random sources, sometimes with out of date listings; the stations selected by vTuner are, at least for now, very good—some had some outstanding music playing during our testing. What wasn’t great, however, was vTuner Radio’s stability; for reasons unknown, after a day of successful tuning, it developed a problem and literally wouldn’t tune again until we deleted and reinstalled it. It also crashed one one occasion when we attempted to pause and restart a broadcast. Apart from these glitches, vTuner Radio is a really excellent piece of software; our hope is that the developer will make the necessary fixes to get it running without interruptions, as it would have earned our high recommendation with greater stability. iLounge Rating: B.
Pocket Tunes Radio has a comparatively less flashy interface, and it—like Wunderradio—currently sells for more than three times the price of vTuner Radio, but it does have some nice features. First, it has a listing right at the top of its database of stations that are broadcasting in AAC+ format, which offers higher-quality sound at lower bitrates, making streaming more reliable—AAC+ tuning support is integrated into the software, as are WMA and Ogg Vorbis, unlike some competitors. It also offers integration with Sirius and XM Radio tuning, assuming that you have an account with Sirius/XM, featuring a full list of Sirius and XM stations that it can tune with a username and password. Stations display on a clean if somewhat plain Now Playing screen, with a nice drop-down menu to select different bitrates and formats for stations that offer such options, and there are search and “nearby” features that help to find stations that mightn’t be easy to locate in its genre-sorted directory. Using these features, rather than the scrolling list, we discovered local FM stations amongst the over 10,000 station choices. There’s a lot here to listen to.
The major issues with Pocket Tunes Radio are interface-related, rather than stability. Apart from the less than inspired layout of the menus—vTuner’s screens look nicer—NormSoft has culled its list of 10,000 stations in the name of simplifying its menus, such that the ambient category shows only 15 stations, while the alternative category has more options, many of which are AOL and Yahoo! stations. Finding the button to look for nearby stations is less than intuitive, and when you’re in the genre listings, you’re supposed to use a button to “Search Entire Catalog” to see everything else, which puts Pocket Tunes in the odd position of looking like it has fewer channels by default than competitors that actually offer less. Finally, there’s a neat feature that enables you to able to play streaming radio in the background after you’ve left the app, but it’s a Safari-based workaround that didn’t always work reliably in our testing; sometimes streams displayed as “broken” in Safari, but sometimes they worked. As with vTuner, Pocket Tunes could use some more polish, but it’s a reliable Internet Radio tuner with a wide variety of available programming, and takes a fairly broad approach to offering free and paid content from within one piece of software. It’s worthy of our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.
Last but not least this week is NPR News (Free) from NPR and Bottle Rocket, a piece of software that we wanted to highlight because it has enabled a news organization to achieve a smart and useful balance of offering text- and audio-format programming for free, with advertising support rather than a price tag for users. NPR News starts with a page that offers tabbed links to top stories, a list of seven topics, or the hourly 5-minute NPR newscast, seamlessly transitioning between displaying text—with prominent Share buttons for email, Facebook, and Twitter—and performing audio from NPR’s servers. Scalable photos are provided for the text stories where possible, with Listen Now and Add to Playlist options for text stories with available audio versions, while buttons at the bottom of the screen take you to lists of NPR programs and stations so that you can listen purely to audio content if you don’t want to read.
What NPR has effectively done is to unify its collection of member stations within a single Internet Radio player, providing a realtime list of what they are currently playing live (“On Air”) and offering as downloads (“On Demand”) with backcatalogs. Go to KLRE in Arkansas, for instance, and you can pull Izzy Investigates shows for free from KLRE, or Out In The Bay from KALW in San Francisco; a bug for some reason sometimes prevents available shows from appearing, even if they’re there. But the fact remains: this is a free app that lets you hear the back shows of programs that interest you, as well as live programming from numerous NPR stations, and provides access to some of the best news content generated in the United States these days. While other companies have focused on developing and trying to charge for slick interfaces to display one network’s programming—CNN, for instance—NPR’s model, with a lot of content and inoffensive banner ads, is the way we’d prefer to get news on our iPhones when we’re not using RSS. There’s room for NPR News to grow as an app, but what’s here right now is very solid. iLounge Rating: A-.