Welcome to this week’s app-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! This week, we’re looking at a broad collection of apps, including two edutainment titles for kids and three noteworthy video applications—one for up to four-person video calling, one for HDR-style video recording, and another for trick videography and photography.
Our top picks of the week are Fring 220.127.116.11 and Flare. Read on for all the details!
Pi’ikea Street’s Interactive Alphabet was a superb letter teaching tool for iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, so it’s no great surprise that another developer has used the same “have fun with 26 mini-apps” formula to teach something different to kids. On the surface, Common Extract’s ABC for Little Scientist ($1, version 1.0) looks a little like a low-rent clone of Interactive Alphabet, complete with somewhat less impressive cartoony artwork, similar voiceover work—this time with male or female voices—and a looping audio track that continues as you move from letter to letter, here with only one song rather than Pi’ikea’s several. This app is also iPad-only, with a separate version for iPods and iPhones, a “one app, pay twice” developers’ trick that we’re really not fond of.
But if you put those issues aside, this app actually winds up standing on its own thanks to the scientific focus; unlike Interactive Alphabet, which playfully jumps from theme to theme, ABC for Little Scientist’s letters all give kids and parents the opportunity to talk about different scientific concepts. “B is for Bacteria” offers a magnifying glass with moving bacteria; “L is for Lightning” lets you touch clouds to create lightning bolts, and “U is for Universe” offers a movable 3-D collection of planets. It’s only on rare occasions that the letters fall short, such as “I is for Industrial” and “Y is for Yacht,” which don’t do nearly enough to explain their value to a “little scientist.” While some additional polish and a universal iOS version could really help to make ABC For Little Scientist a better pick for kids, the content here is pretty good at this stage, and reasonably priced, besides. iLounge Rating: B.
High-dynamic-range (HDR) photography has become increasingly popular over the last several years, but it’s generally been restricted to still imagery, and required multiple exposures—keeping a camera in one place while two or three images are shot in sequence with different settings, a trick Apple automated solely for the iPhone 4. Alaric Cole’s Flare ($3, version 1.0) goes further—but with some caveats. It lets iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch 4G, and iPad 2 users record HDR-style videos in realtime, without any post-processing requirement.
The key words there are “HDR-style,” “videos,” and “realtime.” What Flare creates are not true HDR images, but rather approximations that effectively look quite like HDR photos, with saturated colors and differences in contrast. To accomplish this feat, it trades off both camera resolution and frame rates, creating 640×360 videos with 16 frames per second on the iPhone 3GS and 24fps on the iPhone 4. And it creates videos in a format that isn’t exactly ideal. QuickTime can play the videos back, but iPhoto refuses to extract them from the iPhone 4’s camera roll; Mac users may need to rely upon Image Capture, instead.
Despite these issues, Flare’s videos are actually really cool. In addition to the regular audio that’s recorded, the HDR-style videos pop with color, and subjects glow against backgrounds with the shimmer of sunlight reflecting off of their bodies. Three different presets provide different recommended settings for saturation and exposure, and you can use a slider and/or tap controls to play with the exposure settings before or after recording. Videos are ready to share over six different video-sharing services instantly after recording, as well. If you’re willing to live with the app’s current limitations, and the lack of a proper iPad UI on that device, you’ll be pretty impressed by the results; we’d love to see Apple include a HDR-ish video recording mode like this in its own Camera (or Photo Booth) applications. iLounge Rating: B+.
A lot has changed in the world of iOS applications since we first reviewed Fring back in 2008, calling it “one of the most exciting apps that we’ve looked at in terms of concept” thanks to its free Voice-over-IP calling capabilities for iPod touches and iPhones. This week, Fring released version 18.104.22.168, adding a new iPad interface with support for up to four-person video calling—“group chat,” as Fring calls it. And as with pure VoIP calling, this video chat feature is still free, working over both Wi-Fi and cellular connections. Moreover, it lets you make and receive video calls with non-Apple devices supported by Fring apps, and continues to offer direct-to-telephone calling for an additional fee.
Rather than fully re-reviewing Fring, it suffices to say that the app has some rough edges but manages to be as compelling today as it was when we covered it nearly three years ago. On the iPad, you’re given a left-of-screen buddy list with a right-of-screen pane that can be used for text chats, voice calls, video calls, or group video calls, plus buttons to add buddies, edit your profile, make international phone calls for as little as 1 cent per minute, and an Add Networks feature. The latter button links Fring with your address book, AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, MSN Live, ICQ, and/or fringOut accounts so that your contacts with these services can all be accessed from one place; you can actually flip out of a four-person video chat window on the iPad to maintain a text conversation with other contacts, then go right back to the video chat.
While the quality of video and audio using Fring over Wi-Fi is diminished relative to a one-on-one FaceTime connection—macroblocking in the video and slightly lower fidelity sound are evident—the fact that you can video conference at all with four people using Apple’s iOS devices is valuable, and the experience is smooth enough to be usable and viewable by all of the participants. Even one of us on an iPhone 4 was able to see all four people chatting, though without the presence of the buddy list pane or the ability to completely rotate his orientation as other participants could. If you’re looking for a free audio or video chatting alternative with the option to make inexpensive international phone calls, there’s little doubt that Fring has leveraged iPads and pocket-sized iOS devices alike for an increasingly compelling case to bypass Skype. iLounge Rating: A-.
We don’t generally review parlor trick applications, but Invisibility ($1, version 1.0.1) for the iPad 2 is sort of cute. It leverages the iPad 2’s rear camera to snap a photograph of a table, floor, or other surface, then fills the entire screen with the image, making dynamic orientation adjustments to compensate for the way you’re rotating the device. The result is that your iPad 2 appears to be nothing more than a frame hovering in the air or sitting on a surface; Invisibility even casts fake on-screen shadows, lets you pinch to zoom the image in and out, and adds either a fake Home Screen or photographs from your on-device library to play with. You can erase part of the Home Screen, making it look as if your iPad 2’s display is partially transparent.
While Invisibility doesn’t have a lot of daily value for the average user, it could be a cool trick to use when shooting still photos or videos of your iPad 2 using a different camera, and a nice way to fake someone out once or twice. The app would be even more impressive if its on-screen shadows were more realistic and it could handle the more complex zooming and tilting distortions of its on-screen image automatically—the latter is no easy feat for a developer. As a $1 novelty, though, it’s a nice start. iLounge Rating: B-.
Not everyone can be Dr. Seuss, but it’s nice to see new storytellers attempting to follow his lead—and iterate upon it with different ideas for the iPad. Grids Interactive’s The Truly Great Noodle ($4, aka The Adventures of Nate, version 1.0) is the latest example of how Seussian writing can be evolved with multimedia content: over the course of the 18-page interactive book, a boy named Nate sits down with a plate of spaghetti and discovers, sort of, that it’s made from one long noodle that stretches all across town. “Down Tumbleweed Street ‘round Ol’ McPhee,” reads one of the rhyming pages, followed by “went over the town’s tallest oak tree,” on the next, each with nicely illustrated images that can be tapped upon to trigger cute little animations. Full and rich male-voiced narration is provided for the story, which is easily digested in sentences, and ends rather quickly—perhaps just long enough for young readers—as an instrumental track loops in the background. Parents and kids can record their own narration using a built-in voice recorder, too.
While what’s here is nice, there are some conceptual and executional hiccups along the way. For one, Nate isn’t exactly an inspirational character—he spends almost the entire book sitting in his kitchen slurping the noodle and belching, as the narrator handles the heavy lifting of following the noodle’s less than delicious-sounding whereabouts. As “extras,” tapping on a meatball at the bottom of the screen lets you use a “Burp-O-Meter” to record and compare belches against Nate, as well as previewing a collection of 11 semi-professional kids’ songs for separate purchase as an iTunes album. Depending on your personal parenting perspectives, the burps, songs, and story may strike you as funny or problematic; our own view is that they’re intended to be cute but fall a little short of pro-grade polish. As The Truly Great Noodle is on sale for only $1 as of the time of this writing, it’s an easy buy and solid value for the dollar if the content doesn’t strike you as inappropriate for your kids; for the standard $4 price, we’d call it worthy of a limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.