Welcome to our app-focused edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re looking at three recent app releases, two for kids, and one for adults. Both of the kids’ apps were worthy of recommending broadly to our readers, while the app for adults is somewhat gimmicky, falling short of even a limited recommendation.
The top app in the bunch is Bean Bag Kids Present Pinocchio. Read on for all the details!
Every once in a while, an educational app for kids arrives so impressively conceived and executed that it’s hard to imagine going back to the way things were before—we’ve seen three or four examples since the release of the iPad. Mundomono’s Bean Bag Kids Present Pinocchio ($1) is the latest to achieve the feat: as a universal app compatible with most iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, it performs the classic Pinocchio story using 3-D backdrops and cute canvas sack characters, along with full voice and text narration, interactive elements, and optional simple puzzle game content. Apart from small typographical issues that will no doubt be fixed in an update—the only reason this app doesn’t rate a flat A—this telling of Pinocchio is spellbindingly good.
So many things have been done right here that they’re difficult to separate from one another for praise, but we’ll try: the Retina Display-optimized 3-D engine provides viewers with a window into wonderfully created old-world scenes, using device tilts to modestly change the viewing angle, and enables kids to interact with the characters while hunting for golden stars to unlock extra “backstage” content. Sit passively and you can enjoy the story and backdrops; tilt and tap the iOS device for added entertainment. On-screen text is accompanied by sparkling dust that lights the way through each word as it’s charmingly spoken by a male narrator, and Mundomono’s version of the story is great: it teaches kids the importance of honesty and the consequences of dishonesty, while providing redemption and a happy ending.
As Bean Bag Kids Present Pinocchio is so impressively executed at a low price, it’s hard to take issue with Mundomono’s in-app purchases, which let you add extra piece-arranging puzzles and two “night lamps” to a sample puzzle and lamp set that are included in the app. Moreover, the small typographical issues are few in number, and counterbalanced by the richness of the narrator’s voice, which particularly helps to move the story along on smaller screened devices where the letters are quite small. Tiny tweaks could make this app perfect, but as it is, Pinocchio is great enough to make illustrated books feel antiquated; if this isn’t the future of fairy tale storytelling, we don’t know what is. iLounge Rating: A-.
A little over a year ago, we reviewed Peapod Labs’ kids’ app Bugsy the Blue Hamster, which was followed up last December by a sequel called Bugsy Kindergarden Reading. The first app was cute but a little unstructured, while the second went off the rails due to some interface issues, including a coin and sticker collection system that was way too complex for young players. There’s also third title called Bugsy Pre-K ($3), which offers a more structured learning experience for kids, including a reward system that’s a lot easier to understand and enjoy.
You move Bugsy the Hamster between a collection of different multiple-choice activities, including letter identification, phonics, color, and other quizzes, all connected by a simple structure: Bugsy appears in a bedroom with a toy chest that rattles around, as a voice guides you to explore what’s inside. Get five questions right in a row and you win your choice of toys Bugsy can play with, including a boombox that makes him dance, animals that move around, and a phone that chatters away when you touch it. When you’re done playing with the toy, you go back to the toy chest for another set of questions and another chance to win a toy. Peapod Labs has structured the questions to be non-punitive, and the rewards to be just fun enough to keep a three-year-old or older child amused—better than the earlier Kindergarten app’s sticker interface, with better animation.
While there are still a couple of small rough edges in the app, including a seriously unwanted initial pop-up screen that repeatedly encourages users to create an account and sign into Peapod’s site for tracking of the activities, as well as the slightly loose “what should Bugsy do in the room” question that young kids would have without audio guidance or experimentation, Bugsy Pre-K is otherwise a good edutainment app. It’s now worthy of our general recommendation, and would have rated higher without the intrusive pop-up, which will continue to confuse kids and annoy parents who dislike sign-up pages in their apps. iLounge Rating: B.
Some apps literally sparkle with magic. Others show up in the App Store looking rather plain and ride waves of hype into users’ hands. Paper by FiftyThree (Free/$8) is an example of the latter, a sketching and drawing application inspired by since-discontinued work on Microsoft’s Courier tablet—a piece of hardware that was famously killed by the Redmond company before it could challenge the iPad. Built with the sort of UI restraint that Microsoft’s own productivity apps rarely if ever muster, Paper provides you with a default set of three sketchbooks, one filled with example illustrations and instructions, the next empty for notes, and the last bare for sketches.
Once you select a book within a smoothly animated landscape-orientation 3-D interface that allows you to preview pages individually, you’re taken directly into a full-screen view of two pages, and presented with a tray of tools—initially, a fountain pen, an eraser, and a small collection of muted colors. You can write or draw whatever you want with these elements, use a two-finger circular gesture to “rewind” (undo) up to several words worth of pen strokes, and switch pages by swiping your finger from the far left to the far right. The tool tray disappears when you come close to the bottom of the pages, and can be brought up again with an upward swipe from the bottom.
While this interface has elicited oohs and aahs from some users, it actually feels far more like the developers are trying so hard to do something different that they’ve compromised usability in the process. Contrasting Paper with Cocoa Box Design’s great iPad writing app Penultimate, we found that the simple act of page turning—a tap in the curled page corner on Penultimate—led to exactly the sort of input errors that the two-fingered “rewind” tool became necessary to remedy, without any added intuitiveness or benefit besides the elimination of initially unobjectionable buttons. Exiting the pages back to the multi-book interface, which is occasionally necessary for tasks such as email, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr sharing, similarly requires an unintuitive inverse pinch gesture, while the initial page of instructions becomes hidden within a dark shaded “53” logo. Almost everything that could be made unintuitive has been, here, save for buttons to delete, share, or add pages to the notebooks.
FiftyThree’s other trick is to give the app away for free but charge for the writing tools—$2 per tool or $8 for four. You get the fountain pen-like tool with the free app, but it writes somewhat awkwardly, so you’ll likely want to try the pencil—which oddly relies on a pressure-approximating trick that results in ridiculously light writing—or the thick outliner, the regular pen, or a watercolor brush. Three of these tools are small iterations on the same concept, which apps such as Penultimate would just include by letting you choose your tool’s thickness, while the watercolor brush does a nice job applying fairly thick, translucent layers atop layers. It too cannot be altered in size, so you’re left with large blots on the page, nice for simple paintings but not great for adding art-quality detail. Given how unimpressively the existing tools have been implemented for their prices, it remains to be seen whether the developer will add brush resizing and other color options for free, or attempt to charge for them as well.
If it wasn’t for the pretty main book-browsing screens and the app’s ties to Courier, Paper by FiftyThree wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar right now. For only $1, Penultimate offers so much of the same functionality—and better—that it’s hard to understand what would compel someone to prefer Paper instead. Try this app only if you’re looking to see what a more heavily gesture-based tablet interface would be like, and don’t be surprised if you find that you like the buttons and more sophisticated features earlier apps offered at more reasonable prices. iLounge Rating: C+.