iPhone + iPad Gems: Al Gore’s Our Choice, Planetary, Terra Browser, Unnecessary Censorship + Vimeo
Welcome to iPhone + iPad Gems. This week, we’re taking a look at a mixture of interesting apps ranging from video editing to interactive books—another grab bag of noteworthy titles spanning different genres.
The most impressive titles in this collection are Al Gore’s Our Choice and Planetary, but all of them are worthy of checking out on their own merits. Read on for the details.
Since the initial release of the iPad last year, many publishers have been exploring new paradigms for delivering electronic content, working to depart from the old-school pages-of-text delivery into more rich and immersive multimedia applications. Al Gore’s Our Choice ($5) follows this trend, blending the basic textual structure of an e-book with interactive media.
The app begins with a video introduction by Al Gore, followed by a quick yet informative tutorial that shows you how to interact with and explore the content. The app then opens to a rotating view of the earth with the user’s current location shown as a blue dot. Swiping left and right navigates between chapters, with each chapter’s content shown in a filmstrip style view at the bottom to allow the user to navigate to any page within the chapter. It’s worth noting that the app doesn’t actually include the content in the App Store package, instead requiring the user to have a Wi-Fi connection and sufficient free space (around 1GB) to download the content over the Internet when first starting up the app—a painful process if you want to start skipping around immediately. That said, content is downloaded quietly in the background whenever possible and most users will find that by the time they’ve watched the intro and tutorial they’ll be able to start using the app right away. Given enough time, the app actually does download the entire book and store it rather than accessing content on-demand, so offline use is not a problem, however we found it rather odd that the content wouldn’t have simply been bundled within the app in the first place.
Our Choice provides an extremely natural feeling, gesture-rich interface for navigating content, and its clear that a lot of attention to detail went into the app’s UI design. Pictures can be zoomed in using standard two-finger pinch gestures, but rather than simply displaying a static transition, the image expands and actually moves and rotates with the gesture. Video clips provide similar transitions, and actually continue to play in-place as the user drags and expands them. Similar gestures can be used to zoom out from a specific page to the chapter index and expand sidebar images, which transition to full-screen views with a nice, smooth unfolding effect.
Every picture in the book is geo-tagged and provides a link to a map displaying where the picture was taken; some images are also accompanied by audio narratives. Interactive infographic images allow users to drill down through graphics and charts to see more detailed information simply by tapping-and-holding on appropriate sections of the image.
Our Choice is a universal app for both the iPhone/iPod touch and the iPad. Although the app experience is clearly better on the larger iPad screen, the iPhone version surprisingly provides the same features and UI effects, even including traditionally iPad-only features such as in-place video playback. While Our Choice is not the first great interactive book app we’ve seen since the iPad came out, it definitely scores high points for having one of the most fun and natural-feeling user interfaces we’ve seen, presenting serious and important content in a manner that’s enjoyable and intuitive to explore. You can decide for yourself whether Al Gore’s environmental message is worth consuming, but here, the medium in which it’s delivered is compelling in and of itself. iLounge Rating: A-.
Bloom Studio’s Planetary (Free) is a new iPad app that blends a combination of iTunes visualizer and innovative music exploration. Upon firing up the app, users are presented with a view of all of the music on their iPad as a galaxy of star systems with artists, albums and songs presented as stars, planets and moons orbiting each other.
In order to keep things from becoming too cluttered, you start by choosing a letter to filter by, and are then shown stars representing all of the artists from that section of the alphabet, slowly spinning on screen in a stunning visual presentation. Tap on a star and you get a zoomed in-view showing all of that artist’s albums as planets orbiting the artist’s main star, and tapping on an album reveals a planetary system with individual tracks as moons orbiting the planets. Tapping on a planet begins playing the appropriate song. Pinch and swipe gestures are used throughout to explore your galactic music empire, rotating the view and zooming in and out on stars and planets. Each planet’s orbit and orbital speed represents the length of its corresponding track; when playing a track, a trail is shown behind the orbit to display track progress.
Planetary also integrates with the background audio features of iOS 4, allowing users to switch back and forth between playing music using the built-in iPod app and Planetary; in fact you can switch to Planetary at any time when listening to a track from your iPod library and it will immediately zoom in on the planet representing that track. Basic playback controls are provided within the app, however an AirPlay control is missing—you can instead bring up the multitasking tray or switch back to the iPod app to choose a set of AirPlay speakers.
Planetary provides one of the most appealing and unique ways we’ve seen of viewing your music collection, and it doubles as a really cool visualizer. iPad 2 users can also take advantage of display mirroring over HDMI to display Planetary on an HDTV, although seeing the app provide a separate, high-resolution TV-only stream with only the visualizer portion would be a better way of handling this feature. Additionally, it would be nice to have some alternative ways to begin or interrupt a trip through the iPad’s library besides navigating through the alphabetical artist list, and in the event that Apple offers a way to access a Home Shared iTunes library through apps like this, we would expect that it’ll be even more exciting to explore the galaxy of songs on a computer. Regardless, Planetary is definitely worth checking out in its current form, and it’s free. iLounge Rating: B+.
Although the iPad’s built-in Safari browser is more than sufficient for most users, companies haven’t been afraid to offer enhanced browsers for people with more specific needs. Terra (Free) by Readdle is one of the more recent entries in this category, and aims to deliver some additional features for advanced users while still trying to preserve the familiar Safari interface.
The main features that differentiate Terra from Safari are desktop-style tabbed browsing, full-screen browsing and saving of web pages for offline viewing. When it was originally released last fall, Terra also introduced in-page text search—a feature that Safari now includes as of the release of iOS 4.2 in late November. Terra also provides some additional advanced features such as the ability to mimic desktop browsers such as Mac OS X Safari, Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 3.6 for web sites that may only work on a specific browser platform. Additional privacy features include an “Incognito Mode” which clears all tabs, cookies and browser history after each session, and a passcode lock option.
Terra also provides AirPrint support and the ability to open supported files in other applications—both features that are included in Safari but are less common in other third-party browser apps. Further, however, Terra can also download and save files of any type directly in the app, which can later be transferred back to your computer over USB via iTunes File Sharing, a useful albeit not entirely necessary feature. Unlike Safari, the app lacks the ability to access synced bookmarks via iTunes or MobileMe—an Apple limitation no doubt—but does allow users to manually import bookmarks by exporting them from your browser to HTML and then transferring them in via iTunes File Sharing—a slightly cumbersome but workable solution for users who don’t regularly change up their bookmarks.
Since it uses the same core WebKit engine as the native Safari app, Terra performs at about the same speed for rendering web pages and general browsing, and does a good job of preserving the familiar Safari interface while providing some useful features for more advanced users. If you’re looking for tabbed browsing or want a little extra sophistication, Terra provides some nice advanced features at a very reasonable free price tag. iLounge Rating: B+.
The introduction of video recording capabilities to the iPhone 3GS in 2009 resulted in numerous third-party apps that provided either enhanced video recording or video editing capabilities, ranging from simple camera replacements to Apple’s own iMovie app. Few, however, have taken quite as fun and interesting a spin on the concept as Unnecessary Censorship (Free). A creation of Darren Murtha Design, which was responsible for the acclaimed Drawing Pad for iPad (iLounge rating: A), Unnecessary Censorship provides an iPhone and iPod touch app that allows users to apply TV-style censorship effects to videos of their choice and then save and share those videos online. It doesn’t have an iPad-specific user interface.
As the name implies, the idea behind Unnecessary Censorship is to create funny video clips by applying censoring effects where they would not normally appear, thus making it look like subjects in your movies are doing or saying something inappropriate. Users can shoot video from right within the app or use any video clip in the iOS device library, including clips synced from apps such as iPhoto or Aperture via iTunes. Once loaded in, censorship effects can be added as easily as playing the clip and tapping and holding the “Censor” button in the appropriate spots. The entire process works smoothly and intuitively without distracting you with a lot of extra editing controls.
The default censor button simply adds a standard black box and “bleep” tone, requiring you to go back through the timeline and make further adjustments to customize the size and position of the box or change the type of effects. Simple tap-and-drag gestures reposition the box while double-tapping on the red censor marker in the timeline opens up more detailed options allowing you to change the size, choose different audio and video styles for the censor effect, or remove it entirely. The results can be saved back to the iOS device camera roll or shared via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. When sharing videos, the app provides a preview with a large “Edit Video” heading at the top of the window, implying that the clip can be trimmed before sharing, but we were unable to access any trim controls on this screen, with only the “Cancel” and “Save” buttons being active.
Unnecessary Censorship includes useful tutorial instructions for getting users started, relies upon an attractive and relatively straightforward user interface, and works well for its intended purpose. About the only thing we found disappointing about the app is the inability to use it in landscape orientation—full-screen video previews can be played in landscape as they use the built-in media player engine, but otherwise the app is restricted to portrait-only. Despite this, however, Unnecessary Censorship is still a fun little app that makes it easy to add censorship effects and share videos. While it definitely fits into the novelty category, as a free download it’s definitely worth a look, and users who like to record and share small video clips with their friends will probably have a lot of fun with this one. iLounge Rating: B+.
YouTube integration has been built-in to the Photos app since the debut of video recording capabilities on Apple’s iOS devices, allowing users to shoot videos and upload them to the popular video-sharing service. Users with preferences for other services such have been left to find alternative, and sometimes cumbersome solutions such as transferring via their desktop computer or using the e-mail sharing feature to upload lower-quality and length-limited videos. Popular online video sharing service Vimeo recently introduced its own iPhone and iPod touch 4G app, Vimeo (Free) to provide iOS users with a native solution for uploading and managing videos on the service. Like Unnecessary Censorship, it doesn’t include an iPad-specific interface.
Vimeo goes beyond a simple iOS uploading app, however, by adding the ability to search for and view content from the Vimeo site, capture video, and store video directly within the app. Most significantly, Vimeo also delivers editing capabilities; users can trim or combine videos, as well as adding titles, effects, sound tracks and transitions. Videos can be recorded from directly within the app, including the ability to use the iPhone 4 flash, choose size and aspect ratios and display a grid or box overlay when shooting. Captured videos are stored within the app by default in a format that is ready to edit or upload to Vimeo, but can be exported to the iOS camera roll for sharing with other apps. On the other hand, videos from the iOS camera roll will need to be converted on import, which may take some time. Essentially, if you’re recording video that you intend to upload to Vimeo, you’re best to record it right within the app rather than using the built-in Camera app or another third-party video recording app.
Three quality levels are available for uploading to Vimeo and links to uploaded videos can be easily posted to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or WordPress, as well as sent via e-mail or SMS from within the app. The app also allows you to adjust titles, tags and privacy settings for all of your content on Vimeo, regardless of whether it was uploaded from the app or not. It also acts as a browser for the online Vimeo service, allowing you to browse and search for videos and quickly access and view your inbox, watch later queue or liked videos. New items can be added to your watch later queue, and you can mark videos you like right from within the app.
Vimeo is a great effort for a free app, approximating Apple’s own iMovie app in some ways and surpassing it in browsing functionality, but unfortunately the performance and stability are not yet where it needs to be. It was not uncommon during our testing of version 1.0.3 of the app—supposedly with improved stability—to crash entirely when importing, uploading or recording a video, and the general responsiveness of the app when dealing with even relatively small clips was sluggish at best. Worse yet, the app doesn’t always deliver useful feedback where it should; in several cases we were left hanging for up to 30 seconds after tapping an upload button before the app gave us any indication of a response. Vimeo does appear to have a lot of potential, however, providing a full-featured solution for the popular photo sharing service in a single app. While the polish may not be up to what we’ve come to expect from iMovie, Vimeo has the advantage of tight integration with the online service and a free price tag. Current Vimeo users who can live with a bit of sluggishness and instability will definitely want to check this out; others may want to wait until the stability and performance issues have been addressed. iLounge Rating: B-.
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