iPhone + iPad Gems: Alfred, Alphabet Fun, Editions by AOL, Skype for iPad + Unfollow for Twitter
Welcome to a rapid-fire, app-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems. Today, we’re looking quickly at a collection of small apps that may be of interest to different iOS users—four of the five apps are free, and one is an app for kids that was recently touted on an Apple iPad commercial.
While none of the apps is truly outstanding, our top pick in the bunch is Unfollow for Twitter, followed by somewhat more tepid recommendations for Editions by AOL and Skype for iPad. Read on for all the details.
Much was made of Alfred (Free, version 0.6.8.4469) when Cellxis released it last month, and although we like the concept of the app—a robotic butler that uses knowledge of your dining preferences to make recommendations of similar places— our experiences with it were decidedly unimpressive. In addition to requiring plenty of training, Alfred divides its recommendations into a collection of time/occasion-based categories, making different suggestions based on “good places for lunch,” “a favorite place for dinner,” and similar ideas for dessert, brunch, drinks, and nightlife, rather than focusing on types of food or other elements of the dining experience.
During our testing, Alfred’s recommendations weren’t just haphazard and seemingly random; they also didn’t even respect geography, making suggestions that were in different states and hundreds of miles away. Having an Apple Genius-style system for restaurants is a good idea, but at least where we live, Alfred is all but useless. Universal support, smarter sorting algorithms, and a larger database of restaurants would help a lot. iLounge Rating: D+.
Given the number of edutainment applications we review for young kids, we were genuinely enthusiastic when we saw Tapfuze’s Alphabet Fun ($4, version 2.5) appear on an iPad advertisement, and the concept appeared promising: the left side of the screen shows you a letter, number, or color and a sample of how to write the associated character or word, while the right and center are used for either sample images or words beginning with the same letter. You then use a virtual gray-tipped pencil, one of eight crayons, or one of eight colored pencils to trace the letter, number, and/or word. That’s it.
Regrettably, Alphabet Fun provides no animated or structured guidance to teach writing to kids, relying only on flat diagrams that will require adult explanation and hand-holding throughout the experience. While the app looks nice and modestly randomizes some of its art and words, it doesn’t hold up particularly well against earlier letter and word-teaching apps we’ve tested, and could really use additional animated instructional content. Consider it potentially worthwhile for kids older than five, or in learning environments with plenty of oversight and guidance. iLounge Rating: C+.
Reputably in development for an extended period of time before its release, Editions by AOL (Free, version 1.1.2) is effectively a clone of Flipboard with modest infusions of DNA from News Corp.‘s The Daily. Like a number of pioneering apps we’ve previously reviewed, Editions creates a semi-customized “magazine” to give you a digest of what’s going on each day, completable in the sense that it’s assembled once daily and then can be revisited the next day for new content. Categories are offered based on broad interests—local news, dining, technology—and you’re given token color and font customization options, as well. If granted permission to do so, Editions will grab interests from your Facebook account—surprisingly with very mixed accuracy in parsing terms—as well as integrating with your Twitter and AIM accounts for similar purposes.
A week’s worth of birthdays, the daily weather forecast, and a spotlight on a cover story appear on Editions’ first interior page, which like all of the rest of the pages is viewable only in portrait orientation, and designed with Flipboard-inspired clean fonts and white-gray layouts to look like a magazine. Visually, the app is quite nice, and the sections are parsed with a traditional table of contents to create a more magazine-like structure, but there’s little doubt that AOL is borrowing heavily from apps that came before, regrettably with an artificial once-per-day update strategy that places Edition behind the curve for hourly or breaking news. There aren’t any ads yet, but the company has signaled that it will add them once it has secured a daily place in front of a critical mass worth of users.
In keeping with AOL’s recent strategies, where Editions succeeds is in leveraging other sources’ content to create what appears to be a publication of its own, though as with all of the other apps that are doing the same thing, Editions is at the mercy of some underwhelming news resources, including low-res art and titles that sometimes don’t look properly formatted for the iPad’s screen, and the AI interest-matching algorithms require a lot of user involvement to improve news results. Moreover, the app is in many cases merely leveraging RSS feeds to generate its own pages, most often relying on an integrated web browser to display full articles; pages are occasionally interrupted by Instapaper-like text-heavy articles with their own scrolling interface. While we can understand why small, underfunded startups would use the aggregation tricks found in Editions, it’s somewhat disappointing to see them reappear with only modest tweaks in an app from a huge corporation with substantial news and design resources of its own. Editions does a pretty good job of what it’s trying to do, but it suggests that AOL sees the future of news as merely creating clean-looking wrappers for other organizations’ content, and then borrowing liberally in both the wrapper and news departments. iLounge Rating: B.
In one of the more confusing app release decisions we’ve seen in recent months, Skype has reached out to iPad users not with a universal version of its prior and well-regarded Skype application, but rather with the new Skype for iPad (Free, version 1.0.1273), a standalone app that iPad users will need to separately install—then quickly delete the iPhone/iPod touch version if it’s still sitting on the same iPad. If you don’t take that step and then receive a call through Skype’s free VoIP or video chat networks, both versions of the app will ring at once, and in our experience, the iPhone/iPod touch version may come to the fore.
That little bit of weirdness aside, Skype for iPad is pretty much exactly what we would have expected to see months ago for Apple’s tablets—a streamlined, iPad-ready version of the iPhone/iPod touch application. It’s obvious that they share code, as the My Info profile screen is exactly the same, hovering in an iPhone-sized window on the iPad screen, but the Contacts collection has been transformed into a photo-heavy collection of grid screens rather than text-heavy lists. Chat, VoIP voice calling, and video calling options are all available for iPad 2 users, with obvious restrictions for cameraless iPad 1 users, and a phone-style dialer to make calls to land and non-Skype cellphones remains available for an additional “Skype Credit” charge. Notably, iPad SMS messaging is locked down with the same Skype Credits, though text-based chats to other Skype users remain free.
The only really noteworthy things we found during testing were fairly persistent voice and video desynchronization issues during the one-on-one-only video calls, which placed them well behind Facetime and the iPad version of Yahoo! Messenger in overall performance, albeit with broader device compatibility and a considerably larger base of possible users to contact. In its current form, Skype for iPad still needs some performance tweaks, and it would be better as a universal iOS app, but it delivers plenty of value for the free price, and is better than not having an iPad app at all. iLounge Rating: B.
Released quite some time ago and not updated for over six months, Unfollow for Twitter (Free, version 1.20) by Spicy Apps is receiving a brief mention today because it has become a rarity—a way to manage large lists of followed Twitter users in the wake of Twitter’s crackdown on third-party “mass unfollowing” solutions. Though the free app is iPhone- and iPod touch-optimized, it works on these devices and the iPad to look at your list of followers in clumps of 100 people at a time, filtering either inactive or non-reciprocal accounts, and then removing them as a batch operation.
Unfollow’s utility will be obvious to any Twitter user with an unmanageably cluttered timeline that could really stand to be trimmed down; we were able to use it to turn roughly 2,000 followed users into a list of under 100 within an hour or so, an operation that would have consumed days without the tool. If you missed out on the opportunity to manage your Twitter following list back when Twitter blocked developers from implementing mass unfollow technology, consider this a must-download and use it quickly. iLounge Rating: B+.
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