Welcome to our latest kid-focused edition of iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at three recently released applications from noteworthy companies—one long-established in the world of Japanese comic books, another with several successful App Store edutainment releases under its belt, and a third from a new developer that came roaring out of the gate with a highly impressive new storybook for children.
Two of the three titles merited our high recommendation this time out. Read on for all the details.
Edutainment titles are now common in the App Store, but truly great ones are still rare enough to stand out from the rest. We’re glad that Peapod Labs keeps churning out hits. Last year, the company wowed us with two similar titles that teach kids the alphabet using commonly themed words that start with each letter: ABC Wildlife focused on animals, and the later ABC Go spotlighted vehicles and transportation. Now the company has released ABC Music ($2), which uses alphabetically organized photos and videos of musical instruments to teach letters. Unlike the other apps below, it’s a universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch app that can be purchased once for use on all three types of devices, and it’s just as worthy of its attractive asking price as its predecessors.
The underlying engine is virtually the same as the one in the most recent versions of ABC Wildlife and ABC Go. A full-screen photo is accompanied by individual letters held up by cartoony “Little Explorer” kids at the bottom of the screen, spelling out the instrument’s name. Swiping on the photo brings you to another photo of the instrument, and tapping on a play-iconed video window—recently and wisely relocated to the top left corner of the screen—brigs up a YouTube video of the instrument, with one video per photo. You can tap on any of the bottom-of-screen letters to skip to an instrument that starts with that letter, bounded only by ABC Music’s comparative lack of instruments to fill out letters such as “I,” “J,” “L,” “P,” “Q,” “R,” “U,” W,” “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” for which only one instrument and sometimes as few as two pictures may exist. Small factoids are provided for the instruments, accessible via an “!” icon at the top right of the screen, and a grid of all of the instruments can be accessed through an “ABC” icon above that.
Apart from the sometimes sparing selection of instruments, which Peapod obviously needed to stretch (“nose flute” for N, “quena” for Q, “yue qin” for Y) just to complete the alphabet, the only thing that ABC Music really misses is the opportunity to bring the depicted instruments to life through its soundtrack. As with the earlier titles, a pleasantly upbeat little tune continues to play in the background as you explore all of the pages, stopping only long enough to play the optional videos, and resuming thereafter. Though it’s sufficient to keep kids moving through the pages, the app’s musical theme naturally would have lent itself to a soundtrack where each instrument faded in and out of the audio as they moved on and off screen, making the experience more instantly engaging for kids than just seeing pictures and videos. But for the $2 asking price, ABC Music is otherwise a highly educational and polished piece of software—a fitting companion or alternative to the earlier Little Explorers titles, depending on your child’s interests. iLounge Rating: A-.
We thought we’d seen a pretty impressive example of iPad-ready childrens’ books when we tested Grimm’s Rapunzel last year, but Nosy Crow’s The Three Little Pigs ($8) is awesome. It’s also so much more expensive than any other version of the same story in the App Store that you’ll need to decide whether to spring for it now or wait for a price drop, occupying yourself with a lower-tech but still compelling alternative in the meanwhile.
Nosy Crow’s rendition of The Three Little Pigs is somewhere inbetween the best-known classic storybook version and the Disney cartoon version, telling a tale of three young pigs who are sent out into the world by their parents to build their own homes, encountering a hungry wolf along the way. In this version, the pigs are all friendly—not arrogant, as in some variations—but one is smarter than the other two, building a resilient home from bricks rather than straw or wood. He defends his siblings from the wolf, who runs off after being scalded by a boiling pot in the brick home, and the pigs live happily ever after. There’s no eating of the wolf, nor is there any negativity towards the two displaced pigs; you’re left on your own to reach or miss the conclusion that building with straw or sticks isn’t particularly smart, and that using stronger materials is a better idea, even if construction takes longer.
Though the story is pretty familiar, the execution is not. Nosy Crow has trotted out some of the best-looking 2-D cutout-style 3-D graphics we’ve seen in an iPad storybook, surpassing even the impressive Rapunzel by using detailed artwork and superb page-to-page transition effects to move throughout the story. Beyond the linear and beautifully vocalized telling of each part of the story, which you move through with arrow buttons at the bottom of the screen, every page includes characters and/or objects that can be tapped for added spoken dialogue and animations. Kids will love playing through these interactions, though they’re sometimes not telegraphed as clearly as one might hope—blue dots appear as hints, but could be more conspicuous. Our young tester didn’t understand what needed to be done to build the three pigs’ houses, and because of the arrow buttons, she unfortunately didn’t have to.
There are a couple of other features that could stand to be improved a little: the screen modestly shifts camera perspectives dynamically as you tilt the iPad, giving each new page a greater sense of depth, but jitters too much as you move. You can also blow in the iPad’s microphone to help the wolf knock the houses down, a rare opportunity for kids to help the bad guy in a story. As parents, we found this a little unsettling, though there’s an alternative—tapping on the wolf to help him blow—that somehow isn’t as guilty. That Nosy Crow even thought to include the microphone feature is commendable, however, and keeping it there as an option isn’t a bad thing.
You’ll have to decide whether to part with $8 for this title, and though we think the price is too high relative to other books of this sort, that’s the only major reason this title falls short of our flat A-level recommendation. It is expertly crafted, charmingly narrated, and entertaining for such an extended stretch that we actually enjoyed just sitting down and playing through it several times; also, while we wish it was iOS device agnostic, the fact that it is iPad-only is justified somewhat by the proportions of the items on its pages. Should it receive a price drop to move it into line with other versions of the story, consider it a must-see. We’ll be anxiously awaiting whatever the company does next for iOS devices. iLounge Rating: A-.
As was the case with Marvel’s release of the iOS application Marvel Comics last year, VIZ Media has released a free application called Viz Manga (Free, version 2.0), which provides a front end to download some of the company’s collection of translated Japanese comic books. While we’re not going to give this application a full review, we wanted to bring it to readers’ attention with a brief list of its positive and negative characteristics.
VIZ Manga is essentially just the Marvel Comics application with different content and a few small interface tweaks. The catalog includes issues of Bakuman, Bleach, Claymore, D.Gray-Man, Death Note, Dragon Ball, Merupuri Marchen Prince, Naruto, Natsume Yujincho, One Piece, Ouran Koko Host Club, Otomen, Rurouni Kenshin, Toraware no Minoue, Toriko, and Vampire Knight, generally offering one free chapter from one $5 book representing the larger series. Comics we tested consisted primarily of black and white pages, scrollable from right to left rather than from left to right—in keeping with the original Japanese layouts—with full English text appearing in place of the Japanese language. Tapping on a page brings up a scroll bar that can be used to navigate elsewhere, and another bar to add a bookmark or exit the comic; you can also swipe through pages one or two at a time.
Because Japanese comics’ social norms can be somewhat looser than, say, Marvel’s standards cartoony genitalia appears in the free sample of Dragon Ball, and the themes may otherwise be too racy for younger American kids. That aside, VIZ has obviously worked to provide accurate and uncensored translations of the original works, and like the Marvel Comics app, you can zoom in on individual panels, view two-page spreads in a wide split-screen mode, or see one page at a time in portrait mode. Everything looks good, and the pages have far more pixel-level detail than the iPad’s 1024×768 screen can display when they’re zoomed out.
The major issues with the VIZ Manga app are ones that we’ve mentioned previously as concerns for other content-based apps. First, this app is presently iPad-only, so the content you purchase for $5 per issue is effectively trapped inside a piece of software that you can’t use on your computer or even other iOS devices. Second, you may be paying as much for the digital version as for a printed version, though that depends on the comic; Dragon Ball issues that sell for $5 in print sell for $5 here, too, but $8 Death Note books can be had for $5 here, as well. Third, though we succeeded in downloading a couple of sample issues, we encountered repeated error messages when trying to download additional content through the application on a later occasion. For the time being, the VIZ Manga app is good enough at what it attempts to do, but we’d really need a multi-platform, content-transferrable solution before sinking any cash into downloadable books of any sort. iLounge Rating: NR.