If you’re reading this article, you probably already know what “zen” is, so rather than defining it or the meditative state known as “zazen,” we’ll point you towards a useful Wikipedia entry and these: a collection of sixteen new iPhone OS applications designed to help you relax.
We’ve previously covered one of these programs, Koi Pond, as it shot to the top of the App Store’s charts by offering an inexpensive, seemingly pointless, and yet relaxing way to interact with koi fish in a traditional Japanese zen koi pond. It has since been upgraded to version 2.0, as noted below. The rest of the programs in this collection offer different takes on relaxation, concentration, and meditation; we look at each one below. Our top picks are Ambiance, aSleep, Koi Pond, and iZen Garden.
Five different apps have been designed to create peaceful, relaxing sounds, letting you use earphones or speakers to drown out distracting noises in your environment. The two heavy-hitters in this category are Ambiance ($1) by Matt Coneybeare and aSleep ($1) from Signs Studios.
Ambiance offers you 34 different, looping sound effects, ranging from different types of wind, fire, and rain to outdoor recordings called “city,” “coast,” and “creek,” animals and insects, fans, subways, trains, a clock, and various types of electronic noise. Even through speakers, the sounds are realistic, and you can adjust the volume directly in the app, even affecting the Dock Connector’s output level. A timer is included to provide minute-level incremental timing for the effect for up to a full day, and settings permit you to fade the sound upwards or downwards during or after the timer.
aSleep has more sounds—49—and a nicer-looking, if less feature-laden interface. You still get a timer with minute-level control over turning on or off, but there aren’t any settings for fade effects or behaviors once the timer expires; there’s also a volume control that affects the headphone port and Dock Connector. Unlike Ambiance, you can scroll through sound effects without stopping the currently playing one—a feature Ambiance needs—and the effects are sorted by category: “nature,” “life,” “noise,” “instrument,” and “sounds.” The latter two categories actually consist of musical tracks, including song loops played by specific instruments, four meditation options, two relaxing options, and so on.
Which of these two apps is better? That’ll depend to some extent on what you’re looking for, but we preferred Ambiance. It does a much better job of offering legitimately relaxing audio, as we found that in addition to producing harsher sounds, aSleep has a whole bunch that sound like fillers—really annoying loops rather than legitimately relaxing or good tracks. We also liked the fader features in Ambiance, though aSleep’s interface was a little easier to use, and some users may find the stronger sounds more distracting than Ambiance’s milder ones. We’d rate Ambiance an A- and aSleep a B+, substantially because of their reasonable prices.
A distant third-place set of options comes from Chillingo, which has created three virtually identical relaxation applications: iChillout ($1), iRelax-Ambient ($1), and iRelax-Electronica. All three present you with the same interface, which uses the top third of the screen for a static image and the bottom two thirds for a sound dial and buttons. The static images are all pretty mediocre, and the rest of the interface looks slopped together.
iChillout includes 20 different sound loops, taken from waterfalls, forests, water, fire, and chimes, some almost comically named. Could you tell the difference between a “Scottish Waterfall” and a “Welsh Waterfall?” If so, now you’ll get your chance. iRelax-Ambient has eight songs with new age titles such as “Angel Whispers,” “Silence of Contemplation,” and “Drifting Lullaby,” while iRelax-Electronica has eight songs with single-word titles such as “Transitive,” “Spiral,” and “Coolvibes,” most fitting into the electronic chill or lounge music categories. Most of the music sounds good, but it’s obvious in quieter tracks such as iRelax-Ambient’s Raindrops that there’s staticy compression artifacting. All three also have extremely simple controls. Besides a dial for track selection, they have a timer button with a 24-hour countdown feature, adjustable by minutes, no volume controls, and no album-like switching from one track to the next—each track, regardless of whether it’s a looping sound effect or music track, plays over and over again.
While we wouldn’t pick any of these three applications over Ambiance or aSleep, they do generate interesting audio that different types of users will find relaxing. iChillout is clearly for those who need natural audio stimulation, while iRelax-Ambient is the female-focused song version, and Electronic is the male-focused song version. It’s tempting to say that these $1 purchases are like getting really cheap CDs of sound effects, but you get fewer effects in all three of these apps combined than you do in aSleep, and the quality and interface aren’t hot. By contrast with the other apps, we’d call the Chillingo apps B- efforts overall.
Three of the applications in this collection are nothing more than simple visually relaxing titles with little to no audio accompaniment. Bubbles (Free) by Hog Bay Software is just a bubble generator, letting you swipe the screen to create blue bubbles that fall off whatever the accelerometer shows is the device’s bottom. There’s only one sound effect—“pop”—as you touch the bubbles, and only one special effect, a simple splash of dots as a bubble gets popped. Yes, it’s just a demo. It’s free, it’s simple, and you may only want to try it a couple of times. But it’s amusing; if there were more types or more realistic bubbles, it could be even better. iLounge Rating: C.
Earth3D (Free) by Nicoteam is one of the few applications we’ve liked on the iPod touch and iPhone despite the fact that it doesn’t do a lot—that’s because it does what it’s made to do very well. There’s a spinning Earth in the center, complete with cloud cover and the ability to reflect the sun, which occasionally passes by, along with the moon. Do nothing and you’ll a camera spin around them all; touch the screen with two fingers and you can take partial control over the angle you’re viewing the earth from. Turn the device on its side and everything moves from vertical to horizontal. This is the sort of screensaver these devices would benefit from if they didn’t always turn off their screens to conserve power; we seriously hope that a version with zoom effects will eventually be released. iLounge Rating: B+.
By contrast with Bubbles and Earth3D, iRelax ($2) by ILM Informatique is an embarrassment. It’s nothing more than a black and white starfield—and a poor one, at that—that’s continually moving, and quickly. There’s nothing relaxing about it, and your blood pressure’s sure to go up after you spend $2 on it and realize that it’s so poorly done: it’s worse in fact than the starfields people were creating for computers 20+ years ago. This is beyond demo-bad; it’s offensive that the developer is actually charging for it. iLounge Rating: F.
Zen Gardens & Ponds
There are a number of applications offering zen garden and pond simulations for the iPhone. In the garden category, the best by far is iZen Garden ($5) by Random Ideas. Every launch of the application brings up a “daily zen” quote from someone famous, and you’re returned to the garden that you’ve created using the game’s simple toolset. Tap twice on the screen and you’re offered a list of stones and shells, different colored sands, different sizes and strengths of rakes, and one of three types of background sound—gentle bells, rolling pond-like “ocean” sounds, or bird chirping nature.
You can rake the sand with your fingers, change the size and placement of stones, and clear the sand with a shake; the stones you place, the rakings you do, and the audio settings are saved when you leave. Simply put, this app is as relaxing and authentic to the real zen garden experience as you can get, iZen Garden’s only real issue is its unusually high price. But for that, it would have received our flat A rating for doing exactly what it was supposed to do. iLounge Rating: A-.
By comparison, Attaining Zen ($2) by Trileet is a distant second place. Though it provides similar functionality, letting you place and resize stones, you’re given less control than in iZen Garden, and basically no control over the size or depth of your raking. The app is also silent. But it does let you turn and discard rocks using interesting gestures, and it’s more reasonably priced than iZen Garden. With a little work, and particularly similar zen audio accompaniment, this could be a strong contender. iLounge Rating: B-.
Peerium’s Zen Garden ($1) is the worst of these apps. You’re given a rough, empty sand patch that looks like the surface of the moon, and you’re supposed to draw on it with one or two fingers—one finger for deep single grooves, two for more rake-like patterns. That’s it; it’s like a drawing tool with two mediocre brushes and an awful background. This demo-quality app is not worth $1, and not worthy of being called a “zen garden,” either. iLounge Rating: D.
There are two different zen pond applications for the iPhone, and though they look similar in screenshots, they couldn’t be more different. We’ve already covered Koi Pond ($1) by The Blimp Pilots, but version 2.0 is better. You can now have four types of nature sound effects playing independently or together in the background, enjoy day or night lighting for the pond, move lilipads, and toss food into the pond for the fish to eat with a shake of the device. The fish will jump a little for the food, and nibble on your finger if you leave it on the surface. While we’d like to see the water texture become a little better animated, and have even more control over the looks of the pond environment, Koi Pond is definitely becoming the gold standard for this sort of simulation on the iPhone OS. iLounge Rating: B+.
Tulsi Mayala’s Petal Pond ($1) is a poor—strike that, very poor—duplicate of Koi Pond, copying the idea without any vague sense of the class that went into the original’s design. There’s awful-looking water, awful-looking fish, and fake-looking petals on the surface of the water. Based on whichever way the device is tilted, the petals all clump together, though you’re supposed to be able to drag them around and “make designs” with them. It’s all accompanied by a completely artificial water sound effect. Koi Pond is instantly elevated simply by virtue of this app’s utter mediocrity. iLounge Rating: F.
The final category of zen applications consists of three meditation programs, one free and the others paid. Up first is Meditation Timer (Free) by Lingon i Korg, which is an extremely simple widescreen timer application with a pleasant interface for meditation. You’re given one timer to prepare for the meditation, and a second for the meditation itself, against a soft pink and white background; a bell rings to let you know the session has begun. You can set it to meditate for up to 99 hours—no, we haven’t tried that—and there’s no mid-meditation bell; just an identical one when the clock runs out. That’s it. We consider this to be a decent free app, but you get a lot more from something like Meditator. iLounge Rating: C+.
Meditator ($4) by SimpleTouch Software is more sophisticated. You get a preparation timer, a countdown timer to the end of your meditation, and gentle sounds that play as you’re relaxing. A third timer can be set to provide you with a marking sound at an interval, such as every minute, every two minutes, or whatever you prefer. You can choose from eight sounds for the start, interval, and end, and four background tracks for ambience, and save settings for three different types of meditation. We really liked the audio effects here; you can have the program work in silence, but the sounds it creates for ambience and alarms are truly pleasant.
The only oddities: Meditator actually triggers a beeping sound through the iPod touch’s speaker, which we couldn’t figure out how to turn off, and its clocks are very rigid; you don’t have the sort of control offered by Meditation Timer, and can only set sessions in 5 minute increments, with 1-minute adjustments for the interval alerts. Ideally, the interface would be a bit more adjustable and interesting, and the price lower, but Meditator does a pretty good job on both sound and clock functionality so long as you’re willing to work within its timing limitations. iLounge Rating: B.
Finally, ZaZen ($1) by Innobytes offers a unique alternative interface for meditation timing, but manages to be more confusing than innovative. The first screen is a picture of a rippling pond with a note to tap the screen for instructions—if you don’t, you’ll never understand how to use the software. This screen tells you, without full explanation, that you should go to the settings screen and adjust the size of two stones to change the length of the meditation from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, and the presence of a gong sound from every 5 or 10 minutes to off. You then click on the Zazen screen button, tap a candle in front of a statue to start, and hear a gong after a set one-minute preparation time. No timer, save for your iPod or iPhone’s top-of-screen clock, is displayed.
While the idea of meditating to the image of a statue and a flickering candle is actually quite a good one, and the idea of integrating zen objects such as rocks into the interface is similarly cool, Innobytes has basically done everything wrong in terms of making the application work in ways that users could understand. Resizing rocks to change the duration of the meditation is bad enough, but the lengths of the session and interval are then represented with odd dials rather than numbers, plus white dots for “tolerance,” and you’ll need to go back and forth from the instructions to the settings just to figure out what’s going on. Then, as the session proceeds, you have no idea how far along you are, which might be fine for some users, but probably not for others. Functionally, it’s just a mess. It rates in the C category rather than D because it tries to be novel at a fair price and partially succeeds. but it’s not really worth downloading in its current state. iLounge Rating: C-.