Welcome to this week’s edition of iOS Gems! Today, we look at three recent apps for the iPad and iPhone. Two of them—Chrome and Podcasts—offer alternate methods of browsing the web and accessing podcast content respectively, both features built into iOS itself, while the third allows for easy tilt-shift photography and videography.
Our top picks are Chrome and MiniatureCam, although both only earned our general recommendation. Read on for all of the details.
There was once a point when alternate browsers simply weren’t conceivable on iOS—Apple’s integrated Safari was the only option, like it or not. Nowadays there are plenty of other options, but none has made as big a splash as Google’s Chrome (Free). Announced at the web giant’s developer conference and released just a few hours later, this universal iOS title quickly shot to the top of the App Store charts. Casual users may not find a lot of practical differences between Google’s and Apple’s options, but Chrome does bring quite a few features from its desktop browser that will likely be appreciated by those who are immersed in the Google ecosystem.
Chrome is known for its visual simplicity, and the iOS version is no exception. After logging in to the app with your Google account, the browser launches with a quick walkthrough. One of the most evident differences in Google’s use of the omnibar—a combined URL and search field that Apple is adopting for the newest version of Safari for OS X: tape any address or search term and a list of options is quickly displayed. Either complete the address or tap on any listing to jump right to it. Chrome also gives you the option to use voice input, even on devices that don’t support Siri. We found site loading times to be as fast as we’ve come to expect from Safari, which isn’t a surprise given that the same engine underlies both browsers. Adding tabs and switching over to Incognito mode just require a tap.
Like most of Google’s web products, one of the main benefits of Chrome is how tightly it’s integrated with the rest of the company’s ecosystem. This is evident in how bookmarks are synced, but even more pointedly in the “Other devices” view. Here you are presented with all of the other devices synced to your account, and the open tabs on their version of Chrome. For users who hop between computers and mobile devices, this feature has a large potential impact. Apple will be playing the same game when Mountain Lion and iOS 6 are released with iCloud Tabs, though, so if you’re not already using Chrome on your Mac or PC there’s not a huge impetus to start now.
Along with a handful of other features including the ability to request the desktop version of any site, Chrome is a useful browser, though again, it’ll be most appreciated by those already dug in with Google. Apple fans and those who simply don’t dive that deeply into technology likely won’t appreciate the differences. There’s also one big issue that severely limits the appeal though, and it’s one shared by all third-party iOS browsers: they can’t rely fully on their own engines, and so are limited to being only modestly different than Safari. That said, Chrome is well-designed, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it otherwise, earning it our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.
Unfortunately sold in separate versions for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, Figtree Studio’s MiniatureCam ($1) is nonetheless a nice alternative to Art & Mobile’s TiltShift Generator, a photo processing app we’ve really enjoyed using for the past two years. The concept behind each app is the same—apply blur and color filters to a photograph to create the equivalent of Japanese tilt-shift-style lens effects—but MiniatureCam goes beyond TiltShift Generator by adding a stop-motion video recording feature, and falls short by omitting support for importing already-taken images from your photo library.
MiniatureCam starts by live previewing either the front or rear camera of your device inside a square box, optionally applying either a linear (line-based) or radial (circle/oval-based) blur effect to the image. The blur can be touch-centered and either expanded or contracted with pinch gestures, creating an area of particularly sharp focus while everything else is heavily blurred; you can even turn the circular blur into a tall or wide oval if you prefer. Still image mode creates individual snapshots with the blur applied, letting you tweak the contrast, brightness, and saturation with separate sliders to flatten or punch up your images; video recording mode adds the ability to film regularly or in a stop motion mode that changes the frame recording interval between 1/2x and 8x. Most of the controls are straightforward, and augmented by a settings menu that lets you choose “720p” or lower video recording with stills at either 612, 720, 1200, or 2048 pixels, assuming your chosen camera supports that resolution. Content is recorded by default to the app’s own library, but can be automatically transferred to your device’s camera roll as well if you prefer.
On a positive note, MiniatureCam’s tilt-shift capabilities are nice, comparable for stills to TiltShift Generator’s, but a little easier to figure out due to Figtree Studio’s slightly more refined interface. Similarly, the video functionality is a welcome addition, making it exceptionally easy to create movies with stylized blur and color enhancements, plus slow-mo effects. However, there are some serious oddities in the way the app processes content: “720p” videos are actually non-standard 720×720 square movies, and stills are saved to your camera roll without filters or cropping applied—despite the settings menu, you can currently only get the edited versions out of the app by using icons to share them one at a time via e-mail, your camera roll, Facebook or Twitter. Combined with the app’s inability to process pre-recorded images, these resolution and saving limitations make MiniatureCam a less valuable tool than it could be, but it’s headed in the right direction, and a cool tool for photographers and videographers to check out. iLounge Rating: B.
Podcasts (Free) is one of relatively few titles in the App Store that Apple has released itself. Seemingly developed because iOS 6 removes the Podcasts tab from the Music app, this standalone app has arrived to replace it. According to its description in the store, “Podcasts app is the easiest way to discover, subscribe to, and play your favorite podcasts on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.” While it does add features we’ve been hoping to see for years, the execution is surprisingly weak, especially compared to other apps from Apple.
On all devices, the app is divided into three separate categories: Podcasts, Top Stations, and Catalog, opening into the Podcasts page the first time it’s launched. This offers a grid or list view of all the podcasts on the device, and automatically brings in any podcasts that are already stored on the device. Tapping on any podcast brings up a list of the episodes available in the iTunes Store, which can then be instantly streamed or downloaded. Here is also where you’ll find our favorite part of the app: the ability to subscribe to and set up automatic downloads for podcasts, with controls for which episodes to keep. This frees listeners of the need to sync with their PCs or Macs just to have the newest editions of their favorite shows available. Now, everything happens in the background. The addition of push notifications would be useful in letting users know when they are available, though. And despite the fact that Apple claims that you can sync episode playback between devices, this doesn’t seem to be handled through iCloud, but rather computer-based syncing, which makes the feature no different than what was available before. We’ll see what happens when iOS 6 is released.
The on-screen player for audio content is hidden behind the cover art; tapping or sliding on the image reveals it. It’s presented as a retro tape deck, complete with animated reels that take up more than half the screen. Along with the standard controls we’re used to from the player in the Music app, Apple has added a sleep timer and a button to skip back ten seconds, while replacing the button for speed controls with a tortoise-hare toggle. Although it’s not necessary for functionality, we like the design, which harkens back to Dieter Rams’ work at Braun.
Top Stations is a new interface for browsing through the different categories of podcasts on iTunes and their popular titles—surprisingly, it’s not a one-to-one correlation with the Top Charts that can be accessed from the iTunes Store. This view allows to you swipe icons left and right between categories, and up and down through entries. Tap on any one and it’ll start playing the most recent episode—a neat way to present the information to those searching for new content. Finally there’s Catalog, which simply flips the app with an iBooks-style transition to reveal the Podcast listings in iTunes.
We found Podcasts to be good in theory, but lacking quite a bit of polish; we can’t recall the last time we saw so many bugs from one of Apple’s own apps. Album art disappeared, mystery podcasts with no content would randomly pop up, we had problems connecting to the iTunes store, and performance on one of the iPhone 4 units we used to test was unacceptably slow. Perhaps it was originally intended to be released alongside iOS 6 and for whatever reason got rushed out the door. As a free app, there’s no reason not to download Podcasts and get used to it ahead of iOS 6, but there’s no telling when these problems will be addressed. If you’re serious about podcasts it might well be worth it to check out third-party options to find something that works right, right now. With all of its current problems, and despite its niceties, Podcasts is a B- worthy app. iLounge Rating: B-.