Welcome to this week’s edition of iOS Gems! This week, we’re looking at five different titles that utilize creative interfaces to achieve superior user experiences. This collection includes a bill-splitting utility, a to-do list app that has generated some buzz, Adobe’s long-awaited Photoshop Touch, Tapbots’ new iPad-only Twitter application, and a gorgeous weather app.
Our top picks of the bunch are Weather HD and Billr, but Tweetbot is certainly worth considering if you’re thinking about a new Twitter application, and Clear is fun to play around with. Read on for all the details.
We’ve all been there before: at the end of a meal, it’s time to settle the bill and nobody in the party actually knows what he or she owes. Stephen Poletto’s Billr: Bill Splitting at the Table ($1*, version 1.0) for iPhone and iPod touch has one purpose: making the otherwise arduous process of finely splitting the check at a bar or restaurant simple. There are no settings and nothing to customize; it’s just a tool that does its job well. The UI feels almost like something Apple would release, with leather-like accents that are more appealing than many of Cupertino’s “realistic” iOS apps (we’re talking about you, Calendar).
The entire process is totally linear, starting with choosing the party size. Billr is capable of handling parties of anywhere from two to sixteen people, with straightforward plus and minus controls that not only change the numeral displayed, but also add or remove brightly colored silhouettes; those hues carry through the entire app. The next step is item entry. Each diner has a column denoted by a letter, which you can rename with up to three characters—think “initials.” In this mode, the bottom half of the screen is taken up by the standard iOS number pad. Once the first item has been added to the first column, the next can be added by tapping the “Add Item” button. Moving between columns is a simple as tapping on them, and if there are more than four, you simply swipe to scroll.
Once all of the data has been entered, the next page calculates tax and tip, allowing for either manual numeric entries or percentages chosen with the same plus and minus arrows. The tip changes in whole numbers, while the the tax goes in 0.5% increments. We noticed this as a small issue in our county, where the sales tax rate is 8.75%, but of course the figure could always be entered directly from the bill. Following this is the results page, which shows what everybody owes including the tax, tip, and total. Once everything has been settled and the user hits done, the page curls to reveal three options: Share Via SMS, Share Via Email, and Clear Bill. The former sends a link to website showing the results page, while the email option simply sends an image.
Billr addresses a real issue with class and simplicity, in an app that’s perfectly suited for the iPhone or iPod touch. We often knock apps that don’t have universal compatibility, and while it wouldn’t hurt, this one doesn’t strictly require it; an arguably more glaring omission is a super-simplified mode for just dividing a large bill evenly amongst multiple people, but then, your iPhone or iPod touch has Calculator for that. Small issues aside, we love the smoothness of the experience, the graphics, and the overall tastefulness. Hopefully the $1 introductory price—which is perfectly fair—doesn’t jump too much. Unless it does, we highly recommend Billr: virtually every iPhone owner with granular bill-splitting needs should own this app. iLounge Rating: A.
Realmac Software’s Clear ($2, version 1.0.1) got a lot of attention when it was launched, mainly for its unique UI. Without a doubt, that attention was well deserved: Realmac put some real thought into how one interacts with its app, and the result is an intuitive experience that’s a least a bit different from anything we’ve seen. The interface, however, is the only truly special feature; Clear is otherwise a threadbare to-do app for the iPhone and iPod touch with some neat tricks that lacks in features, even compared to Apple’s free, built-in iOS 5 app Reminders.
At its core, Clear is a three-layer app, with the “main” menu in the middle. This is where the list of lists is stored. Tapping on the number to the right of the listing, or the blank space between the title and the number, drills down into that entry, while touching any portion of the text brings up the keyboard to rename it. Unlike the rest of the interface, we didn’t find this to be totally intuitive, especially since the number box is such a small touchpoint. The very top layer has all of the app’s settings and themes, as well as tips and tricks and a list of the developers’ Twitter accounts.
Realmac utilized a handful of Multi-Touch gestures that work particularly well for this specific app; they’re introduced with a series of slides when the app is first launched. To move between the three layers, one simply does a long swipe up or down the screen. We note long because a short pull brings up a new entry line on the second and third levels, while letting go brings up the keyboard for text entry. Another way to add a listing is to pinch apart between two existing ones. Both of these methods have cool 3-D effects for accompaniment, as well as pleasant tones and a popping sound effect, combining together to make menu manipulation feel both real and fun. Swiping from left to right marks the task as complete, and by default triggers a vibration, while going the other way simply deletes it. To move an entry up or down, one simply holds onto it until it pops up and then drags it to the desired location. Think of it as similar to rearranging apps on the iOS home screen, but with fewer steps.
Although they take some getting used to—it’s easy to do the wrong gesture at first, before getting used to them—we like Clear’s controls. They represent a smart use of Multi-Touch technology, and a shift away from what’s expected. The visual and audio appeal of the app is also nice, with bright color gradients and melodic sounds throughout. There are even Easter eggs—for example, having Tweetbot installed unlocks a special theme, albeit merely a color shift. But if you strip away the UI, all that’s left is a simple list. There are no timed reminders, no support for geofences, and no multi-device syncing—all things that you get for free with Reminders, and probably won’t want to give up here. As a proof of concept, Clear is certainly impressive and fun to play around with, but as a truly useful tool, it’s lacking in features. For that reason, Clear earns a B-. It does less than Reminders, but does it with a heck of a lot more pizazz. iLounge Rating: B-.
Announced late last year, Adobe’s new Adobe Photoshop Touch ($10) has just hit the App Store, and it’s intriguing despite some serious limitations. Unlike the company’s earlier universal iOS app Photoshop Express, Photoshop Touch is a rare iPad 2- and iOS 5-only application—restricted to landscape orientation, no less—and is being sold rather than given away like Express. Helping to justify its price tag are its unique new user interface and additional features that weren’t found in the free app; on the other hand, serious photographers and long-time desktop Photoshop users may not agree on whether the current version has enough functionality to justify the purchase.
Some parts of the Photoshop Touch experience are impressive. Unlike Photoshop Express and most—not all—of the free or inexpensive photo editing tools out there, Photoshop Touch allows you to work with layers, which are separate opaque and/or transparent overlays composited together to create final images. Along with layers comes support for adding type, layer effects such as drop shadows, glows, and gradients, plus a new feature called “camera fill,” adding to your existing image whatever the iPad 2 can snap with its own unimpressive camera hardware. Like Photoshop Touch’s intuitively executed warping tool, which lets users finger-control multiple points on a grid to distort an image, all of these tools work very much like they do in desktop versions of Photoshop; the only differences are found in simplification-focused shortcuts Adobe uses to make positioning, resizing, and other tweaks easier for tablet users. Also nicely implemented is Photoshop Touch’s file management system, which lets you pull images from your device, Facebook, Google, or Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, all using an easy-to-understand folder and thumbnail interface.
Issues begin to pop up when you dive deeper into some of the features. Adobe includes a collection of its own 29 fonts, but none of Apple’s, and serious Photoshop users will likely hunger for more options. They may also chafe at how type renders immediately, requiring you to delete the text layer and try again if you want to change whatever you typed. Perhaps most shockingly, photos are capped at a maximum image resolution of 1600 x 1600 pixels, well below what most cameras are outputting today; this might be fine for creating images to be shared on Facebook or other web sites, but it’s inadequate for printing or archival purposes. There are some UI oddities, including the uncanny way adjustment tools overlap photos, requiring you to manually resize each image to see it during tweaking. There’s also more than a little lag during editing, suggesting that Adobe hasn’t properly optimized its code for the iPad 2; one can only assume that performance would have been even worse on the original iPad.
Similarly, while Adobe has included some of the basic features Photoshop users have been hoping for, it has left many others out—so many that we couldn’t possibly count them all here. As just a few examples, there are no painting, retouching, or cloning tools here, and some of the better color correction tools from the desktop Photoshop are missing, as well; without them, it’s hard to say that Photoshop Touch is truly worthy of the Photoshop name. On the other hand, Adobe includes 13 helpful tutorials and 28 filters that are extremely familiar, letting users very easily apply halftone, graphic pen, comic, TV monitor, and other effects without much expertise. And it has preserved some powerful layer features, such as opacity, blending modes, and merge/flatten tools.
While it would be unrealistic to expect a $10 iOS application to fully mimic the functionality of a $700 desktop app, Adobe Photoshop Touch doesn’t feel complete at this point: it’s restricted in image processing power, somewhat laggy, and missing enough signature Photoshop functionality that it feels more akin to a built-up free photo app than a stripped-down version of Adobe’s flagship product. Like its predecessor Photoshop Express, we expect that Adobe will continue to update this app and improve its performance and functionality, but for the time being, it’s a little short of recommendable to most of our readers. iLounge Rating: B-.
After months of rumors, and debuted alongside a 2.0 update to its popular Twitter application Tweetbot for iPhone, Tapbots recently unveiled Tweetbot—A Twitter Client with Personality for iPad ($3, version 1.0.1). Users of the handheld version will immediately feel very familiar with this larger edition: it shares the same design aesthetic and general interface, but just happens to be bigger.
Tweetbot for iPad supports both landscape and portrait orientations, something the iPhone/iPod touch version is lacking. Both views display the same information, with the timeline on the right, and a control panel on the left. In landscape, each of the listings in the panel is labeled, while portrait still displays the full list but only shows the icons. In the timeline, swiping right on any tweet shows the full conversation thread if there is one, while swiping left displays replies. Tapping on an entry brings up the ability to reply, retweet, or favorite the tweet, as well as actions and details menus. Also like the iPhone app, triple-clicks can be set to a variety of different functions depend on the user’s preference. We appreciate that the app supports Tweet Marker, a feature that keeps positions in sync across devices, although we were surprised to find it was turned off by default. Many other settings are customizable as well, on a very granular basis.
Ultimately, Tweetbot for iPad is effectively a blown up version of Tweetbot for iPhone—and that’s not a bad thing, as both versions are attractive, intuitive, and fully featured. They’re a little more advanced and customizable than the official, free Twitter app, with a lot more visual and sonic pizzazz. We’re happy to see Tweetbot finally make the jump to iPad and address what was one of our biggest concerns when we originally reviewed the smaller version. There is no reason, however, that the apps need to come as two separate purchases, especially for the $3 that each commands; Tapbots would do its customers a great service by combining the two into one universal title. Doing so would justify a high recommendation for this otherwise great app. At the current price point, it’s worthy of a strong general recommendation, which is to say that we’d advise waiting for a compelling update or price break before jumping in. iLounge Rating: B+.
Since Apple generally does a good job with built-in iOS applications, we rarely come across third-party versions that are so different and better that we’d consider purchasing them as replacements. But it does happen, and Vimov’s new Weather HD ($1) is a prime example: using current and forecasted weather data from Weather Underground, it evolves Apple’s simple flat imagery into fully animated weather videos, letting you left- and right-swipe your way through current, hourly, and one-week forecasts for multiple cities almost as easily as in Apple’s Weather, but with considerably greater beauty.
Weather HD’s key benefits are stunning 3-D renderings that range from photorealistic to better than reality, arriving in multiple screensaver-quality variations for each weather condition so that the videos don’t get old. For instance, tap on different “Mostly Cloudy” forecasts and you’ll be treated to different 3-D flythroughs of cloud formations; “Clear” may bring you through a field, solar burst, or wind farm; “Rain” or “Chance of Rain” lets you glimpse individual droplets floating through the air. Vimov renders snowy mountains as enchantingly as it does sunny days; virtually every one of the scenes is impressive enough to keep sitting on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch screen when it’s connected to a computer or wall charger.
There’s only one consequence to installing Weather HD—and the most likely reason Apple hasn’t done something similar with its own iOS Weather app: the large 300MB footprint it requires. If Weather HD was creating its graphics with realtime 3-D models on Apple’s latest devices, it could probably perform similar feats without consuming as much space, but Vimov supports older iOS devices as well, and pre-renders all of the scenes as looping movies. This is a modest concern given how inexpensive and well-executed this app is; it’s fully worthy of the $1 asking price, and deserves to be seen by a much larger audience. iLounge Rating: A.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here. Additional reviews were contributed by Jeremy Horwitz.