Welcome to this week’s second edition of iOS Gems! Today, we look at five new iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch apps, including two for kids and three for older users.

While most of the apps are recommendable, the stand-outs are A Charlie Brown Christmas, Fotopedia Japan, and Photogene2 (aka Photogene²). Read on for all the details!

A Charlie Brown Christmas


Of all the apps we’re covering today, there’s little doubt that Loud Crow Interactive’s universal iOS app A Charlie Brown Christmas ($7) arrives with the most star power—it’s a licensed version of the famous classic TV movie and printed book featuring Charlie Brown as the voice of holiday tradition and authenticity, versus his dog Snoopy, who represents the crass commercialization of Christmas. Similar to the printed book, the Charlie Brown Christmas app features a “flippable page” interface that here lets characters appear to pop out of two-page spreads; kids can tap the characters to make them move and play little sound effects, swiping on bottom-of-screen bars to make lines of story text disappear after they’ve been read. A running tally is kept for secret items discovered during read-throughs of the book, complete with tips on how to find additional items—an incentive to enjoy the story more than once.


Even without that nice little treat in place, there’s a lot to like about this app: the pages have been given textures to make them look softer and book-like, the interactive elements such as Beethoven’s piano and character animations go beyond what’s in the book versions of the story—even the ones with little audio buttons built-in—and there’s optional but worthwhile full voice narration for the story by the same actor who voiced Charlie Brown in the TV special. There aren’t a ton of pages, but what’s here covers the ground we’d expected, and the swipe-ready text boxes are easy for kids to move through.


On the other hand, iPhone and iPod touch users are really going to need the narration. As well as Loud Crow did with the iPad implementation of the app, which looks great on a TV over AirPlay Screen Mirroring, the text is all but illegibly small on Apple’s smaller-screened devices; this is the only thing that undercuts Charlie Brown Christmas’s otherwise unblemished high recommendation. Additionally, it’s worth noting that this particular Charlie Brown tale is laced with a somewhat adult and frequently grumbly tone that requires a more mature mind and level of understanding to appreciate in the correct context. Parents of really young children should consider holding off on this app for a while, lest the wrong messages be picked up rather than the redemption reached at the end. iLounge Rating: A-.

Activity Monitor Touch


We were genuinely interested to see what HandyPadSoft was offering with Activity Monitor Touch ($2), an application that claims to be “just like Activity Monitor on your Mac”—the sort of tool that could really come in handy if properly implemented. As little as we’d prefer to monitor the memory, CPU, and storage footprints of different apps, there are times when it’s very useful to be able to stop an out-of-control app from screwing up a computer, and serious users of Apple’s increasingly computer-like iOS devices would benefit from this ability. HandyPadSoft’s proven nice grid-like interface, complete with nice text, icons, and iPad/iPhone/iPod screen optimizations, offers every visual reassurance that you’re going to get that in this app.


Unfortunately, Activity Monitor Touch doesn’t really live up to its promise. It lets users see a very Mac-like list of apps as “processes”—obscurely numbered and named, including all sorts of hidden iOS background tasks that contribute to using up the device’s memory—along with “priority” numbers that range from 0 on up to 50, with most processes listed as priority “17” or “24.” Unlike the Mac version of Activity Monitor, which actually lets you stop, individually analyze, or otherwise do something with the processes, Activity Monitor Touch does almost nothing with them; instead, you need to move to a second tab called “Usage” where their total impact on CPU, memory, and storage space are summarized in only marginally useful ways: you can tell whether they collectively are occupying the CPU, RAM, or flash storage, but not whether any is responsible for creating problems on its own.


Two other panels provide similarly underwhelming summary information. One largely regurgitates details from the device’s General > Settings > About menu, along with a nearest-5% battery summary that isn’t as precise as the battery meters built into recent iPads and iPhones. The other then uses that battery life number to estimate the device’s standby time, game, wi-fi, and 3G life. That’s pretty much it. Our impression of the Activity Monitor Touch app is that the developers have overpromised and underdelivered on the sort of app-managing functionality power users would expect from a program like this, padding a very simple process display with a few other features to try and justify the asking price. Hopefully HandyPadSoft will go back and add some legitimately useful features to this app rather than the window dressing that’s currently available. iLounge Rating: C.

Fotopedia Japan


Even after visiting Japan many times, we still love to look at photos of the country’s many beautiful landmarks—natural or man-made—so Fotopedia Japan (Free) by Fotonauts was an easy download. Apparently supported by Tokyo’s Narita Airport, the application contains 1,300 truly beautiful images from across Japan, presented either through a sortable database or a slideshow, plus the ability to add individual images to a “My Trip” collection that displays each image’s location on a Google-dependent map. If you’re planning a trip to the country, the My Trip feature lets you browse through the pictures, pick ones that appeal to you, then figure out exactly where you need to go to see them in person.


Apart from a couple of small interface oddities, including the app’s thankfully adjustable initial tendency to play photos so quickly that you can hardly take in the gorgeous details, and a main screen that starts out with a huge array of options that aren’t related to the app’s Japanese content, Fotopedia Japan really has a lot of great imagery to offer. Iconic images of the Meiji Shrine, the templeside streets of Gion, and famous Himeji Castle are interspersed with pictures of geisha, dancers, and photographers in the midst of their arts; visions of the past, present, and near-future compete for your attention as the Imperial Palace, Akihabara and Miraikan are depicted in all their glory. If you’re even vaguely interested in Japan, this free app is certainly worth grabbing; with some interface polishing, it could be even better. iLounge Rating: B+.

Hiding Hannah


Though it might be a little too kiddie for kids older than four, really young children will enjoy the storybook-like universal iOS app Hiding Hannah ($2) from Squeaky Frog. The story’s very simple: a little girl named Hannah loves to hide from her parents, and the book follows her throughout her house as her parents keep searching for her and the things she hides away. Hidden locations are randomized from play to play, so a hairbrush hidden in one bathroom drawer will likely appear somewhere else in the room next time. Happy music plays in the background as you search, and voice narration reads the small bits of text that appear on each of the app’s 12 pages.


On a positive note, Hiding Hannah can be fun. Kids merely tap on the on-screen objects to make them move or open, and the reward for tapping in the right place is being able to move on; there’s a particularly hilarious segment involving Hannah’s favorite TV show, “Sock Monkey Dance Party,” which even adults will look forward to seeing a second time. But the app is ultra-simple and very short: the 12 pages are over very quickly, and the pleasantly-illustrated pages tend to look very flat unless you’re tapping on them, which brings only little sparks of life to the otherwise still images. We commend Squeaky Frog for offering this as a universal app, and for choosing a nice, kid-friendly theme; we just wish there was more variety in the activities, and more energy in the screens. iLounge Rating: B.


Last but certainly not least this week is Omer Shoor’s Photogene² ($2), the only iPhone/iPod touch-exclusive app in this collection—and a challenge to search for in the App Store due to its superscript numbering. As the name suggests, this is a sequel to the well-known and widely-liked photo editing tool Photogene, and it’s more than just a repackaging of the same features in a new shell… though that’s the initial impression some users might come away with, and a few very conspicuous in-app purchase offers may rub other users the wrong way.


To be totally fair to this developer, Photogene enjoyed a full three years of updates before this sequel came out, and Photogene² does offer nice assets of its own—enough to justify a follow-up purchase and second app. In addition to an integrated still camera with the ability to apply an image stabilizer and/or 24 different realtime filters to the image it’s snapping from the front or rear camera, Photogene² now includes a Collage feature that lets you assemble up to 6 images in a combined template for e-mailing, social network, or photo site sharing—all of which are integrated into the app—as well as image editing tools that include text bubbles, frames, cropping, retouching, and tons of different level/color adjustments. You can seriously use Photogene to modify images to your heart’s desire, then output them even at full iPhone 4S 8-Megapixel resolution.


As is obvious from the screenshots, everything looks better than it did in the minimalist Photogene: sliders, tools, and the familiar histogram have all been given nice little coats of gloss and shading, along with a new half-ring tool bar that makes really nice use of the iPhone and iPod touch screens. While it’s a real shame that Photogene² doesn’t offer iPad support—the developer sadly maintained separate versions of the prior app for different devices—what’s here looks great and works extremely well to adjust your images. Judged as a still image creation and editing tool, Photogene² goes so far beyond the functionality of the integrated Camera application that they’re not even in the same league; this is, like Camera+, a nearly complete replacement for what Apple offers for free to iOS users, here minus only video tools.


That said, there are little things in Photogene² that are sort of annoying—the inclusion of only three base templates for a given number of photos in a collage is underscored by a $1 in-app purchase to unlock additional templates; a similar $1 “bundle of frames” to “make your photos even more beautiful” also comes with a fairly large “buy more” button. At first, these feel like unnecessary little cash grabs that really just should be included for the asking price, but then, Photogene² is inexpensive, and it’s possible that the developer is going to keep the initial price low by leaving these arguably trivial things out. On the other hand, there’s nothing objectionable about the all but buried $6 in-app purchase that unlocks “Photogene Pro,” which adds features that most users will never miss: star ratings of photos, watermarking, saved FTP server settings, more precise RGB color curve adjustments, JPEG export quality controls, a color picker for the auto white balance feature, and so on. All of these features would be welcomed by more serious users, but their omission in the standard app doesn’t feel as if it’s being waved in your face.


There are ways that Photogene² could be better. Universal iPad support would be great. The new tool bar could use a little more polish to improve the intuitiveness of its icons and selection methods, while the app could benefit from a more conspicuous and ever-present way to back out of menus. But for what it is, at the price it’s being sold for, it’s an excellent photo editing and snapping app. We consider it worthy of a high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.

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