Welcome to this week’s app-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re taking in-depth looks at two recent app releases for kids, as well as brief looks at streaming media apps that adults will enjoy.
All of the titles here received at least general-level recommendations, but the real blockbuster in the bunch is Nosy Crow’s Cinderella. Read on for all the details.
There are now five games in Peapod Labs’ family of ABC edutainment titles for kids, and we’ve liked or loved them all—ABC Wildlife, ABC Go, ABC Music, and ABC Play have now been joined by ABC Food ($2, version 1.0), an alphabet teaching tool with as universal a theme as humanly possible. As with the prior titles, ABC Food is a universal app that treats children to a collection of alphabetically sorted photographs while a song plays in the background, letting kids explore the alphabet with images and words. To reinforce the alphabet lessons, both the first letter of each new item and its name are spoken aloud as the picture is displayed, with the full word appearing as a spelled-out collection of cartoony signs at the bottom of the screen.
Most of the food items include several photographs, which are every bit as gorgeous as the ones Peapod picked for its previous apps, and buttons on the screen now lead to one of two types of activities: in addition to one or more YouTube videos showing the food being used in some way, each food has an interactive game that consists of swiping one image until it becomes another. With finger gestures, an apple is cut in half, asparagus is cooked in a pan, and a bagel slice is covered in jam. While all of the interactions will seem incredibly basic to parents, young kids will oooh and aaah at them, reveling in their simplicity and enjoying the accompanying sound effects. By contrast, the videos are somewhat more hit and miss, featuring everything from cartoons to clips from cooking shows that feel as if they were selected more because they were available than because they were age-appropriate. Notably, the optionally triggered text blurbs that previously accompanied images have been removed here, and aren’t particularly missed.
While we were thrilled with the imagery and the scope of the collection of foods in ABC Food, the new app does have one major issue: its new navigation system. Peapod Labs originally launched the ABC series with a brilliant idea, presenting each image with a tappable collection of letters that immediately led a curious child to a new item whenever one of the letters was picked. Combined with the prior titles’ immediate verbalization of the letter, this created instant letter reinforcement and teaching. In ABC Food, Peapod Labs has changed this, instead bringing up a grid of alphabetically sorted photos to select from. While this gives kids more choice of pictures, it breaks up the flow of the experience, and may confuse younger children while reducing the immediacy of letter repetitions. Given all of the tweaks Peapod has made to its basic formula over the years, it would be nice to have a settings menu to turn changes like this on and off. ABC Food is otherwise a great app for kids, and highly recommendable. iLounge Rating: A-.
We were blown away when we saw Nosy Crow’s awesome iPad rendition of the childrens’ fairy tale Three Little Pigs earlier this year, so when the company’s new take on Cinderella ($6, version 1.0.2) appeared in the App Store, we couldn’t wait to see what was inside. Put simply, although Cinderella once again misses out on universal iOS support—one of only three things we would like to see fixed in future Nosy Crow releases—it raises the bar even further for interactive storytelling on Apple’s devices, expanding on Three Little Pigs’ interactivity, environments, and polished presentation.
As with Three Little Pigs, Nosy Crow uses the basic story of Cinderella—a poor girl forced to serve as a maid to her stepmother and stepsisters—as the basis for a much larger interactive experience. Though there’s some visual overlap in the 26 pages of the book, Nosy Crow has created a large collection of highly detailed, interactive environments that its characters can move within, such that Cinderella, her fairy godmother, and Prince Charming are generally not just confined to the boundaries of a single screen: in one section, you help Cinderella by gathering the items the fairy godmother needs to transform into her carriage and horses; in others, you get to watch as the carriage passes through the woods on the way to and from the ball. The “wow” moment came when we discovered that mirrors in the rooms were leveraging FaceTime cameras to reflect our faces back at the screen, a great little trick that will draw kids into the story even further.
In addition to full, wonderful narration of the story, every screen lets you tap on characters to make them speak aloud and with on-screen dialogue. The characters are obviously based upon the ones from the original story, but they’ve been given decidedly folksy and somewhat contemporary edges: the boy-like Prince Charming is shown carrying a paddle and ball toy, for instance, and eventually plays ping pong with Cinderella at the castle. Unlike traditional books, in which you’re confined to the linear experience of moving through the story, Nosy Crow’s rendition of Cinderella feels like a collection of playgrounds that let kids enjoy each of the story’s pivotal moments until they’re ready to advance to what’s next.
Cinderella has only three issues that could really stand to be improved. As with Three Little Pigs, Nosy Crow uses the device’s tilt sensors to modestly change the camera perspective, a neat 3-D but somewhat disorienting effect that feels even less valuable here given the tight camera angles and scrollability of most of the scenes. Second, while the game’s interactive elements are entirely welcome, the picking up and dropping of on-screen items aren’t handled as smoothly as they could or should be. And third, the game is still sold in separate iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions, though the entry price for the iPad one is lower this time, and certainly not objectionable given the excellence of most of the content here. Three Little Pigs was great; Cinderella is even better, and less expensive besides. With small tweaks, these books could easily go from revolutionary and smart to near perfection. iLounge Rating: A.
The last two apps in this week’s roundup are Crackle (Free, version 2.0.20) from Sony/Crackle Inc. and Stickybits’ Turntable.fm (Free, version 1.2.5), titles that you’ll enjoy if you want to bring free music or videos to your iOS device.
Originally released for the iPad and now sporting full universal iOS device support, Crackle offers a collection of ad-sponsored movies and TV shows directly from Sony to iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch users. Think of it as Hulu Plus, minus the subscription fees and the broader support of various networks. What’s interesting is the recognizability of the videos available through Crackle: legit films such as Will Smith’s Bad Boys, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s Pineapple Express, and Jack Nicholson’s A Few Good Men are amongst the many well-known movies in the app, with TV shows including episodes of Seinfeld, Bewitched, Married with Children, and Sanford and Son. While you mightn’t be able to see the full run of a given series—Seinfeld currently has only nine episodes, for example—there’s no shortage of free content to watch, assuming that you’re willing to deal with an ad at the start of every new video, and each 10 or so minutes in the middle.
Video streaming quality and content are both solid, very rapidly moving from the nicely-designed iPhone and iPad user interfaces into playback. While we found the commercials to be just a little on the annoyingly intrusive side, free on-demand access to this solid collection of content shouldn’t be written off, and may well signal the start of a new business model option for Hollywood studios as consumers continue to cut the cable and flee traditional video rental services. Also surprising: Crackle’s video library includes the uncensored version of the infamously panned Vincent Gallo film Brown Bunny, making it one of the first App Store releases we’ve seen to feature X-rated content without Apple interference. For this reason, and despite the cartoons that are included elsewhere in the app, we wouldn’t recommend that you hand the app over to children. iLounge Rating: B.
Turntable.fm is a very different but equally interesting new app, here streaming music directly to an iPhone- and iPod touch-specific interface that runs in upscaled mode on iPads. The idea here is that five virtual DJs choose music tracks to play in front of an “audience”—people using computers and mobile devices to listen. There’s a chat room that can be viewed either as a series of briefly appearing speech bubbles on a cartoony collection of people, or as a chronological list of the room’s comments. Additionally, listeners can vote on whether the current track is good or not, and if the vote goes against the DJ, he or she is bumped in favor of the next person. There are multiple rooms for different types of music, each with a capacity of roughly 200 people, so you can move from genre to genre—or just away from music you’re not enjoying—as you prefer.
On a positive note, Turntable.fm can be a nice way to discover music—a way to hear tracks friends and strangers think will entertain a room full of people, or just the small crowd they invite to a private room. It’s based upon a web site that’s growing in popularity on Macs and PCs, with a relatively straightforward interface for choosing rooms and picking songs. But the app version is not totally optimized for iOS devices yet. While there are ways to create rooms and sort-of select songs to share, they’re more than somewhat buggy, such that we couldn’t even accurately control playback of selected songs within a two-person room: the user interface to add songs isn’t intuitive, and once we added songs, they didn’t play. For the time being, Turntable.fm is a nice way to listen to free music that’s been chosen by computer-based DJs, and chat with friends at the same time; hopefully it will evolve into a more interactive experience for iOS users, complete with true iPad support. iLounge Rating: B.