Small Apps + Updates: FlightTrack, Flight Update, River of News, ooTunes, Tuner + Wunder Radio
Welcome to our latest edition of Small Apps + Updates! Today, we’re looking at updated versions of flight tracker and Internet radio applications we’ve reviewed over the past two years, as well as a new RSS reader with a somewhat different spin on presenting Google News-synchronized feeds for iPad consumption.
Our top picks are Mobiata’s FlightTrack, Oogli’s ooTunes, and Weather Underground’s Wunder Radio. Read on for all the details.
Last year, we reviewed a collection of flight tracking applications for the iPhone and iPod touch, two of which have received iPad compatibility updates in recent months. The more notable of the apps is FlightTrack - Live Flight Status Tracker ($5, version 3.6.4) by Mobiata, which makes its iPad-enhanced universal version available as a free update to prior iPhone and iPod touch customers. However, Mobiata now has two separate upcharges for additional features: a $4 Airport Board View and a $5 FlightTrack Pro upgrade, which brings the standard app to feature parity with the company’s standalone $10 Pro version.
Due to UI enhancements that benefit iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users alike, there’s no doubt at this point that FlightTrack has the best-looking interface of the tracking apps we’ve tested. While Mobiata’s UI was clearly designed for Apple’s pocket devices and only modestly upgraded for the iPad—an overhaul to make its features easier for iPadders to find would be great—the quality of the shaded, clean menu elements looks great regardless of device, and the iPad’s larger screen enables multi-flight tracking on a single map, plus touchable map elements with windowed information overlays. Like the flight progress lines that appear as flights are in motion, weather and airport icons are easy to see against the detailed map images, and maps can always be zoomed and panned.
The value of the in-app purchases is a little less obvious. If you’re looking for great eye candy, the Airport Board View offers an iPad-only alternative to Sojern’s Airport Remote Monitor, a standalone iPhone app we reviewed recently with the ability to simulate any airport’s arrivals and departures listings. FlightTrack’s in-app feature looks like the boards at international airports—pretty cool, really—and works well to let you sort flight options by city, airline, and so on. But has no iPhone/iPod compatibility, updates on a five-minute basis, and costs as much as the separate app. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth purchasing; our feeling is that the feature is most likely to see use on an iPhone when you’ve just landed in a city, rather than on the smaller number of iPads.
FlightTrack Pro adds push notifications, FAA delay information, more weather features—just forecasts in addition to graphical overlays found in the $5 version—and synchronization with TripIt, an online flight schedule service. Unfortunately, the Pro features are somewhat obscured within the scrolling windows of the iPad interface, and the app’s notifications are slow. One flight we tested touched down 7 minutes before the notification arrived—far more than enough time for a person on board the plane to call with the same information, and at some airports, possibly even deplane. This sort of gap is easy to blame on slow flight arrival tracking services, but in practice, it makes a notification service far less useful for people who want to know whether to leave for the airport to pick up friends or family members. Our advice is to stick with the $5 version and enjoy it for what it offers; the Airport Board view is nice for those with iPads and particularly models with 3G service, while the Pro upgrade can be safely skipped. iLounge Ratings: (FlightTrack) A- / (FlightTrack Pro) B-.
By comparison, Flight Update by Silverware Software ($5, version 4.5) has received an iPad update that can at best be described as ‘token,’ and at worst, very disappointing. Unlike FlightTrack, which uses much of the screen for attractive maps, Flight Update fills the iPad display with empty, segmented spaces that were used for significantly more appropriate iPhone and iPod text menus. Like FlightTrack, it relies on Google for maps, but defaults to plainer, flat-shaded versions, which it overlays with less attractive graphics while planes are in flight. The option to switch between map views to one that’s identical to the satellite imagery in FlightTrack, minus the weather overlays, is hidden behind a map button on the bottom of the screen.* On the flip side, Flight Update offers a basic weather service that looks up cities on an as-requested basis, as well as FAA arrival and departure delay information that FlightTrack includes only in its Pro version. Silverware also includes seating charts and alternate flight information with simple button presses, and provides more detailed information—which Silverware says is accurate live data*—for the current city and state a plane is flying over. A year after we last looked at it, Flight Update feels decidedly less than fancy, and it really needs iPad-specific UI enhancements, but as a free update to the prior app, it’s acceptable. iLounge Ratings: (iPhone/iPod touch) B+ / (iPad) C. [Editor’s Note, Aug. 25, 2010: The two * details above were updated following initial publication based on information provided by the developer.]
Rethinking the way that something has been done in the past can lead to major user experience improvements, a fact that has been demonstrated with several next-generation newsreaders we’ve previously reviewed. But it can also result in unimpressive alternatives that add little to prior concepts while taking features away. That’s the issue with Idyllic Code’s iPad-only application River of News ($3, version 1.0), which in portrait mode attempts to streamline RSS news reading by turning all of your Google News-synchronized sources into a single flow of endlessly scrollable content. For us, this just doesn’t work. In addition to wasting lots of screen space with huge fonts, River of News makes the generally unwarranted assumption that you really want to read everything that is coming across your RSS sources, forcing you to physically move past titles, paragraphs or text, and photos rather than just picking the articles that interest you from a well-organized list.
Press a button or flip to landscape orientation and you get a list of sources on the side, each with an unread count; clicking on one filters the “river” into all of the articles from one source. Then you have to scroll through them one-by-one, too. As a decent concept with so-so execution, River could improve with a more distinctive UI, smaller fonts, and a smarter approach to managing the flow of information it gathers; the current approach doesn’t strike us as a good use of our time or the screen’s space. iLounge Rating: C.
Though it hasn’t been updated for the iPad, the app we continue to use—with the 2x button—is the latest edition of Oogli’s ooTunes Radio - Recording and Alarm Clock! ($5, version 3.1.1), which has seen some significant improvements since we looked at ooTunes version 2.0 a year ago. Live streams can now be paused, recorded—with scheduling, assuming your device is left with the app running in the foreground—and easily marked with timestamps so that you can quickly recall which station you were listening to at a given time. There’s also support for an alarm to wake from your favorite station, and for supported stations, now playing artwork akin to what’s found in the device’s built-in iPod library.
These are welcome features, but what really sets ooTunes apart from rivals at this point is its catalog of nearly 24,000 stations, which due to software support for AAC+, MP3, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, several streaming formats, some Flash streams, and even paid subscription-encrypted Sirius/XM and live365 content enables you to find tons of live programming that most other App Store Internet Radio apps don’t offer. When we searched for certain local AM radio stations in ooTunes, they were there and just worked, even when they either weren’t available at all or tried to load and failed in other apps. Even in the absence of true iPad support, ooTunes is the Internet Radio application we most often turn to these days for access to terrestrial radio stations; with the new scheduled recording and other features, it’s now worthy of a high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.
We returned to check out the iPad version of Tuner Internet Radio ($5, version 1.96) after
reviewing the iPhone/iPod touch version two years ago and finding it worthy of a limited recommendation; it’s amazing how little has changed since then. Developer Nullriver has done nothing more than expand the prior graphic elements to fill the iPad’s screen, offering a very weak bar-based visualizer during audio playback and boring text-based menus to find stations from a list that’s short and outdated enough that stall-outs were more common in our testing than actual working stations. At this stage, we wouldn’t bother with this app on any of Apple’s devices; it’s a waste of money and space. iLounge Rating: D+.
By contrast with ooTunes and Tuner Internet Radio, the latest version of Weather Underground’s previously-reviewed 2008 application Wunder Radio ($7, version 1.93) has the advantage of looking pretty nice on the iPad—using a smart trick. It interestingly splits the screen into a thin radio-browsing bar with its own favorites bookmarks and scrollable list of stations, then a web browser occupying most of the rest of the large 9.7” display. Though this apportionment of the screen relieves the developer from having to do much graphic design work, it also enables the iPad to effectively multitask web browsing with streaming audio, something that iOS 4 devices can do with ease but current iPad iOS 3.2 software can’t handle. If you want to see more information on the current station akin to what would fill an iPhone or iPod touch screen, just click on an “i” button and the iPhone’s screen content is overlaid in a floating window temporarily. The UI has been improved a little from the version we tested back in 2008, too, with a pleasant blue background rather than a plain white one.
We found Wunder Radio’s tuning performance to be only a little spotty, sometimes failing to pull up requested streams (“connection failed,” frequently with Japanese stations) but otherwise tuning from a large 50,000 list of stations relatively quickly. One oddity due to the new iPad UI is that connection information, including loading and failing details, only displays on the generally hidden “i” screen, so you’ll get an extended silence with no progress updates when a station is loading and failing. In the United States, the station list includes RadioTime-aided current track information that didn’t update frequently enough to be accurate over time for currently playing songs on stations we weren’t listening to, but improved when we tuned stations in. As with the iPhone and iPod touch performance of the application, the iPad version could still benefit from some more fine-tuning—and the new $7 price is higher than before, besides—but this remains a good radio tuning application, and worthy of our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B+.
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