iPhone Gems: Replicate Your Favorite Widgets, Part 1 | iLounge Article

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iPhone Gems: Replicate Your Favorite Widgets, Part 1

Over the past few months, iLounge’s editors have been hunting widgets—more precisely, we’ve been looking for iPhone OS apps that duplicate the features of popular and useful Mac OS widgets. Apple already includes Stocks, Weather, Calculator and other features with every iPhone and iPod touch, but what about others—phone directory apps, the unit convertor, and package trackers? Or dictionary, flight tracker, and simple translation apps?

Today’s first part of a two-part series looks at four great widgets that have been replicated in the App Store with 14 different apps; the next part will look at the rest of the major Mac widgets we use.

Phone Directory Apps, Like Business and People

More convenient than picking up an old phone book, trying to visit separate web sites, or hoping that Google Maps will return the right result, two useful Apple widgets have made it easy to look up addresses and telephone numbers for individuals and companies. Bearing the Yellow Pages logo, Business is a simple Mac widget that lets you look up local businesses either by name or by category, using your zip code as a starting point. The similar widget People has a White Pages logo, and separately provides you with first and last name boxes, then a third box for address information, letting you search the country’s phone directory for additional address and telephone details.

On the iPhone, there are several dedicated replacements for Business. The one that people might naturally gravitate towards is YPmobile (Free) from Yellowpages.com, a division of AT&T. YPmobile offers searches of local businesses and events, telling you both what’s permanently around you and upcoming concerts that you can attend, the latter feature not offered by any of the other business finder apps we’ve tested. Results pages from searches are presented plainly, with little indication that you can click on addresses, phone numbers, or web URLs to open up Maps or Phone on the Phone, but they do work. YPmobile also has icons to let you store individual results, create plans, and share results through e-mail.

Sadly, YPmobile obviously wasn’t developed to simplify use of the iPhone; it unnecessarily complicates a lot of what it tries to do. Load it up for the first time and you’re presented with pages of San Francisco business listings, and no apparent way to change the location to your current position. You have to dig through the menus before you discover the location finder, and then, you’ll need to activate it separately for the app’s two sections. If you try to send an e-mail to someone with a search result, you’ll actually need to type your name and e-mail address in addition to the recipient’s—YPmobile sends the e-mail through its own server, with whatever potentially spoofed name and e-mail data you enter, rather than using yours. For a free app, this isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either; some polish could make it much better. iLounge Rating: C+.

Two other business finder options are AirYell ($1) and YellowPages (Free) by Avantar. What’s confusing about these apps is that they’re virtually identical to one another, yet the free app works better, and occasionally refers to itself in dialog boxes by the paid app’s name. Our impression is that Avantar originally wanted to charge for AirYell, then realized that YPmobile was free, so discontinued work on AirYell in favor of YellowPages, leaving both in the App Store.

Both apps begin by ascertaining your current location, though you have the ability to change the search location to any other place if you prefer. They present you with a simple search box that can be used to find local businesses, as well as bottom-of-screen buttons to take you to common searches, including a long list of popular and alphabetical categories that can be selected by touch. Results pages look nicer than YPmobile’s, and clearly provide you with dialable phone numbers, addresses, map links, and the ability to add any listing to your iPhone’s contacts. Missing are URLs and the ability to e-mail info to someone else.

Notably, AirYell’s phone and map links don’t work as well as YellowPages’ do; click on the map or the phone number and you go to a browser-style page rather than directly into Phone or Maps. In YellowPages, however, a single click takes you into the correct iPhone application, complete with driving directions from your current location in Maps, which is exactly the way it should be. By comparison, YPmobile pinpoints the location on Maps, but doesn’t instantly provide directions there, and AirYell brings up the location in a browser window version of Google Maps, which is impossible to read without some zooming. Some users may prefer an alternate scheme, but we found YellowPages formula to be the handiest on the go. We’d call AirYell not worth buying, and YellowPages the current best of the dedicated business lookup apps. iLounge Rating (YellowPages): B. iLounge Rating (AirYell): C-.

Do you really need a dedicated app for just business lookups? Despite its name, WhitePages Mobile (Free) by Whitepages.com handles both people and business searches, as well as reverse phone number lookups—a potentially useful tool if you get calls from unfamiliar numbers, though it’s not always reliable. We’d still like Apple to incorporate it into the iPhone’s Phone feature.

The People search feature is nicely done. While you enter the person’s name and city on your own, the app includes a set of predictive city buttons that properly guess what you’re entering so that you needn’t type the whole city and state after you’ve entered a few letters. When it returns a result, you get a nice screen with a mini-map, a phone number, directions button, and the ability to create a new contact or add the information to an existing contact. Results are generally limited to what’s currently in the land line phone directory, and reverse phone number lookups work within the same directory; it does a poor job with cell phone numbers, and in addition to not identifying the callers, often incorrectly claims the numbers are land lines when they’re not.

On the business front, there’s some good and bad news. WhitePages Mobile does have a business finder, complete with name or category searching. Unfortunately, it does a comparatively poor job of searching either one, using no location services or pre-entered categories, and restricting its searches to the specifics of whatever you’ve entered. Thus, you have to type everything—yes, everything—on an on-screen keyboard, and once you’re done, the results you get will be far fewer in number than on the other business finder apps. Also, there’s no business URL included, and no way to e-mail a result, though you do get the same sort of nice results pages for businesses you look up as for people. This is a nice free app, but it could definitely benefit from location awareness—particularly for its business side—and a better directory for reverse number lookups. iLounge Rating: B.

The last of these apps is People (Free) by Adam Leonard. People offers only a streamlined version of the people search feature found in WhitePages Mobile, with three types of searches: name with location, address alone, or reverse phone number. Results are returned on Contacts-style pages with telephone numbers, addresses, and whitepages.com URLs for “more information”—typically not useful for people—but all of the fields can be clicked on.

What we like about People is that the reverse number search feature works as well as in other apps we’ve tried, and that it tries to use location awareness to your advantage: after entering a name, you have the ability to either enter the address or just use the location finder for the city and state. Unfortunately, it doesn’t search the proximity around that city and state, so the only time the location button will be useful is when you’re searching for someone in the exact same area where you’re currently located. A “nearby” feature has problems, bringing up a screen that claims mismatched city and zip codes rather than letting you enter information. Like WhitePages Mobile, People could use a bit more work, but it’s also not as ambitious of a program to start with; for now, it’s worthy only of our limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.

Package Delivery Apps, Like Delivery Status and Package Tracker

Everyone loves to receive packages, and especially around this time of year, they’re coming in fast and furious around the iLounge offices. On Macs, two programs called Delivery Status and Package Tracker let you track the current status of packages as they progress from initial shipment to final delivery. Package Tracker handles package details only from DHL, FedEx, and UPS, starting after the shipment has been received by one of these carriers. By comparison, Delivery Status offers far more robust tracking of packages, even including pre-shipment tracking for orders from Amazon’s international sites, Nintendo, Adobe, and a number of foreign delivery services.

The iPhone has a number of package tracking apps, ranging in price from free to $2. Delivery Status touch is far and away the best of them, developed by Junecloud, maker of the Delivery Status Mac widget. Like its predecessor, the iPhone OS version of Delivery Status offers the widest variety of tracking options, as well as the best interface.

As with the widget, Delivery Status touch handles shipments from Adobe, Amazon in 7 countries, Apple, Aramex, Canada Post, DHL, DPD, FedEx, GLS, Google Checkout, Japan Post, Nintendo, Parcelforce, Poste Italiane, Posten Norway and Sweden, Purolator, Royal Mail, TNT, UPS, UPS Mail Innovations, and USPS. A single status screen provides current status for all entered packages, labelled as you prefer, plus a countdown timer to delivery of packages that haven’t yet arrived. Each one is color coded roughly to match the colors of the company doing the shipping. Simply put, this interface is as nice as any we’ve seen for this functionality—Apple should really include this app with the iPhone OS.

In addition to letting you track multiple packages and see everything at once, Delivery Status touch has a feature that’s extremely handy: you can send your Mac-entered deliveries directly to the iPhone or iPod touch via e-mail, after confirming an address as “safe” with the widget. In other words, cut and paste from an e-mail on your computer, then just send it over to the pocket device—super simple. The only caveat with Delivery Status touch is the $2 asking price, which is on the high side given these other apps and free PC/Mac options, but fair given the quality of this software relative to competitors inside and outside of this category. If you’re a frequent package tracker, this is a worthwhile buy; if you only need an occasional single-package tracker, consider a free iPhone or computer-based option. iLounge Rating: A-.

Package Tracker ($1) and Package Tracker Lite from Ethan Allen Productions both track packages from DHL, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. Lite is ad-sponsored, with a nearly full-screen ad popping up between pages—requiring hitting a skip button—while the $1 version has no ads. This app did a mediocre job of presenting multiple packages, forcing click-throughs to check individual status for each one, and returned error results on a just-delivered FedEx package. It’s plain in both versions, and the Lite version is annoying thanks to the ads, as well. We’d pass on both, but if you need to track a single package for free, Lite is an option. iLounge Rating (Lite): B-. iLounge Rating (Full Version): C.

TrackMyShipments ($2) and TrackMyShipments Lite (Free) are two versions of the same program - Lite tracks only one shipment at a time, while the $2 version tracks multiple shipments at once. They both can track DHL, FedEx, UPS and USPS shipments. What’s novel about these programs is a feature that simultaneously excites and concerns us: you can take any “We have shipped your order” e-mail you receive from a company, e-mail it to a TrackMyShipments e-mail address, and have the information automatically processed by the developer so that you needn’t cut and paste tracking numbers or other details.

In a test we did with two shipments, the service did pick out the correct tracking number and service from an e-mail we sent, and also received details from manually iPhone-entered packages. However, they stalled on providing current tracking information for the items, and forced us to fill in a “note” field for no apparent reason. A bigger problem: do you really want to share your personal information, including your address and phone number, possibly other stuff found in a shipping notice, with a developer? You need to sign up for an account with the developer even if you’re going to be manually entering in your tracking information. As we found the TrackMyShipments interface to be unattractive, slow on updates, and generally not worth paying for, we wouldn’t recommend it to anyone; users who are willing to trust their details to the automated service, as well as ones interested in the company’s “Pro” features such as SMS status updates may like these apps, but we’re not enthusiastic about them. iLounge Ratings (Both): C-.

iTrack ($1) by MacEnvy offers more of the same sort of simple tracking functionality for DHL, FedEx, UPS and USPS, but with an interface that’s almost offensively weak. The program lets you enter tracking numbers into a list, and then lets you click through to browser window versions of the tracking results. There’s nothing fancy about the approach, and the only simplification it offers is the storage of the tracking numbers and auto-linking to results pages. It feels lazy, and not worth $1, given the other programs we’ve tested here. iLounge Rating: D.

Unit Converter Apps, Like Unit Converter

The final category of widget apps for today is one that is represented very well on the Mac with a program called Unit Converter. This indispensable Apple tool enables you to quickly do conversions of one type of unit—say, inches, dollars, or ounces—into another, like millimeters, yen, or tons. Though it handles only 11 types of conversions (area, currency, energy, length, power, pressure, speed, temperature, time, volume and weight), these are the most useful conversions for average users, and the currency converter actually retrieves current rates every time you open the widget. Of course, there are other types of conversions that could be offered, but they’re largely of interest for scientific or business users.

There are lots of iPhone unit converter apps out there, and we’ve decided not to cover them all. Instead, we’re listing three that our editors have been using and liking. First is Units ($1) by Crossroad Solutions. This isn’t the cheapest converter out there, but as our editor Jerrod H. put it, this app’s extremely clean, streamlined interface makes it worthwhile. At the top of the screen is the current type and details of your conversion, in easy to read characters. The middle lets you switch conversion modes, adjust the units for both from and to, and create shortcuts to your three most often used conversion tools.

Units lets you convert area, currency, energy, temperature, time, length, weight, speed, pressure, power, volume, data storage, fuel consumption, typography, density, and astronomy units, with a currency converter that can be manually updated when you need more current data, and automatically once a day. Without going into great detail, the app makes lots of conversions very easy, and presents them cleanly, letting you switch entry modes from one unit to the other if you want to do fine-tuning of your numbers. We love Apple’s Mac interface for this functionality, but on the iPhone, this version of Units is as good as they come. iLounge Rating: A-.

Another iLounge editor, Jesse Hollington, prefers Equivalence ($5) by ApogeeDev. This app currently features conversions for length, mass, time, current, temperature, mole, intensity, force, frequency, pressure, energy/torque, power, speed, area, volume, charge, potential, capacitance, resistance, conductance, magnetic flux, magnetic field, inductance, illuminance, molarity, molality, dynamic viscosity, flowrate, paper weight, data storage, bandwidth, and insulation. Some are available only in landscape or vertical modes; the converter can be turned on each angle. Equivalence also features a sometimes staggering array of types of conversions within each category: have you ever wanted to convert a PostScript pica to a furlong? As ridiculous as that sounds, now you can.

Equivalence packs a ton of power, but it doesn’t have a currency converter, and it sells for 5 times the price of Units, which will work perfectly well for most people. The sheer number of supported conversion types makes the program more comprehensive than competitors we’ve seen, but also more complicated; ApogeeDev appears to be very committed to updating its unit conversion database, and providing those updates via instant web-based, restart-required pushes to Equivalence rather than forcing App Store redownloads. Science-minded professional users and students will find this app to be comparatively superb, but for our purposes, it’s a second-place finisher behind the more affordable and streamlined Units. iLounge Rating: B+.

The final app we’re featuring today is Units (Free) by TheMacBox. This option isn’t sexy, but it’s extremely simple to use, and costs nothing. It supports a huge number of currency conversions, most turned off by default, and does one thing that neither of the aforementioned competitors does: it displays multiple results on screen at once.

Consequently, you don’t need to select individual listings for the different currencies or lengths you most frequently convert; you just enter your number into one field, and 9 others populate with converted numbers. Area, currency, energy, temperature, time, length, weight, speed, pressure, power, volume, data storage and volumetric flow can all be converted; this version of Units also includes an on-screen ruler that is pixel-perfect with a real one for purposes of doing simple measurements of iPhone screen-sized objects in inches or centimeters.

Though TheMacBox’s version of Units isn’t going to thrill those looking for the ultimate iPhone OS user interface, it’s a great little free app: you needn’t spend anything to get the basic functionality provided by the Mac widget. It’s your choice of whether a cooler interface or a huge variety of additional tools and units will enough of a draw to convert your hard-earned cash into developer dollars. iLounge Rating: A-.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.

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Comments

1

Just to make it a little clearer: from the Delivery Status desktop widget, you click a button to send that delivery to your iPhone.  It sends an e-mail, which you view on the iPhone.  Once you click the link in the e-mail, a new delivery will be added to the iPhone app.

Posted by Galley in Greenville, SC on October 15, 2008 at 12:06 PM (PDT)

2

There was actually a screenshot problem on this end: the Delivery Status composite didn’t include the second screenshot that was supposed to be there, explaining that process—iTrack was accidentally pasted, instead. Reload and the image should be correct now.

Delivery Status actually can send multiple deliveries in that e-mail link. And, Jerrod Hofferth points out, you can use a bookmarklet to grab UPS and FedEx status pages using the iPhone and automatically turn them into Delivery Status bars without having to cut and paste.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 15, 2008 at 12:42 PM (PDT)

3

It’s really good to see someone writing high-quality reviews (especially comparative reviews) of iPhone Apps.

About TrackMyShipments’ update rate: We update 1st about an hour after the request is sent in and then more and more often until the day of delivery when we check about every 2 minutes.

We’re changing our 1st update to be within a few minutes so that users don’t feel like we’ve ignored their request.

Also - especially for non-game apps - I recommend writing to the Developers’ Customer Service Dept to test them as part of your review.

If you have any questions, please let me know.

-Andrew
CEO - TrackMyShipments Inc

Posted by Andrew Bennett on October 16, 2008 at 8:53 AM (PDT)

4

Thanks for the great, in-depth review of WhitePages Mobile and all of the other useful applications.  You identified a lot of the key features we had in mind when designing WhitePages Mobile, and a few things we plan to continue improving.

One point of correction:  The app is in fact location-aware.  Tapping the GPS icon in the address field for a People Search or Business Search will populate it with current location.  We’ll think about ways to make this feature more obvious.

Thanks again and keep up the great work!

Bret Moore
WhitePages

Posted by Bret Moore on October 21, 2008 at 5:26 PM (PDT)

5

I like the interface of “Units” but IT DOES NOT DO CONVERSIONS CORRECTLY!!!  If you show enough decimal places, you can see that it doesn’t even convert inches to feet correctly (1 foot = 12.00000000006 inches)  Come on!!  If you’re a unit converter, you have to be able to at least get that right!!

Posted by samacur on August 6, 2009 at 10:08 AM (PDT)

6

That’s Units by TheMacBox that I’m referring to.

Posted by samacur on August 6, 2009 at 10:09 AM (PDT)

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