Peapod Labs created one of the most impressive kids’ applications of 2010 in ABC Wildlife, a gorgeous collection of animal photographs navigated with intuitive, alphabet-teaching controls. Now the company has returned with two new universal applications for the iPad and iPhone: ABC Go is a direct sequel to Wildlife, and Bugsy The Blue Hamster is a completely different title with a cute new mascot character.
We look at both titles today in a special kids-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems, along with brief peeks at two other recent releases—the block-building title Bloki, and iKnow Cats HD.
If you’re a parent and you haven’t yet seen ABC Wildlife, particularly on the iPad, you’re missing out: Peapod built a complete grid of the alphabet using some of the best animal photography available online, typically letting a child swipe through a total of twelve or more photographs of four different animals per letter. Each photo is linked to a different YouTube video for additional exposure to the animals, requiring a live Internet connection for streaming rather than storing all of the video content on the device. ABC Wildlife wasn’t just easy on the eyes and ears, but also introduced a spelling- and letter-teaching tool where tapping on any letter of an animal’s name transitioned over to a different animal whose name started with that letter. Cheerful and fun, the app became a hit with our kids and has remained in active use for months.
ABC Go ($2) is ABC Wildlife with a different theme—forms of transportation—plus some interface refinements and a more reasonable pricing scheme. As with the prior title, there are three pictures per subject, each linked to a different YouTube video, and somewhere between one and ten subjects per letter. U, V, X, Y, and Z each have only one vehicle, but S has ten and B has seven. American users will note an oddity or two, such as “skies” referring to the French plural for “skis,” or “omnibus” being used as an alternate to “bus,” but the majority of vehicles will be recognizable to all English speakers, regardless of region. Brief fun facts are included for each word, generally one fact per word rather than picture, and entries can now be scrolled through page-by-page continuously, spanning multiple entries and letters in alphabetical order.
Once again, the photos are the real stars of Peapod’s show, and though the images aren’t as iconic and uniformly strong here as they were in ABC Wildlife, they range from great to decent depending on the image. An image of an airplane provided by Boeing is eye-poppingly clear, but certain bicycle, bumper car, and dumptruck shots—to name only a few—look like they were chosen as filler rather than pro-grade imagery. Videos taken from YouTube again have a certain unpredictability that always yields something interesting for kids to watch but rarely matches the quality of the photography; Peapod is basically just putting together the best free content it can find from Flickr and YouTube, and succeeding more often than not.
Where ABC Go wins additional praise is in its universal approach. As we’ve been saying for months, the fact that the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch now all run the same version of iOS removes almost any reason for developers to sell separate iPad-only and iPhone/iPod touch apps when the core content is identical between devices. That’s what Peapod Labs has done here, selling a device-agnostic application at the same $2 price it previously offered the iPhone/iPod touch version of ABC WIldlife for—a better value for users with iPads who might have had to buy the same content twice. ABC Go therefore merits the same high recommendation of its predecessor, for different reasons; it’s worth grabbing for sure if you want your child to learn the alphabet in a compelling and interactive way. iLounge Rating: A-.
By comparison with ABC Go, Bugsy The Blue Hamster ($2) is entirely original, at least as far as the aesthetics are concerned. Essentially a collection of educational mini-games for kids, Bugsy lets you interact with a cute animated hamster who giggles, dances, and occasionally says “hi!” as he stares out at you from three rooms of a house: the bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. Tapping on the screen moves Bugsy to a different spot, and tapping on Bugsy makes him interact with whatever’s behind him. A two-year-old child can figure out how to move Bugsy around instantly, though the puzzles may require a little hand-holding and explanation.
Some involve matching a specified shape or color with objects on the screen. Others involve rearranging objects into 1-2-3 or 3-2-1 numerical order, counting from one to nine, matching like objects from a small collection, or getting two halves of an object to match each other and an on-screen example. Though the puzzles repeat conceptually from area to area, the graphics change, as do the voices telling you to “find the matching XXXX,” “help Bugsy count the YYYY,” or “which item does the ZZZZ” go into. Younger kids will like the happy music that plays in the background, the cute faces and noises that Bugsy makes, and the rewards—brief animations of Bugsy—received for completing several puzzles in a row.
As with ABC Go, American parents might notice little glitches in some of the phrases included in those XXXX, YYYY, and ZZZZ parts. “Put the Foods in the right order” isn’t proper American English when the “Foods” are all the same item, for instance, and the rest of the spliced-together phrases don’t sound totally smooth. A little extra voice work and added diversity in the puzzles found within the three rooms of the house would be great. But what’s here is a very nice start for original content from Peapod Labs, and proof positive that the company’s talents for charming illustration and music aren’t limited merely to user interface elements. We wouldn’t be surprised to see this company become one of 2011’s most impressive players in edutainment applications. iLounge Rating: B+.
Driftlab’s Bloki HD ($2) is explained as a simple block-building application for children—a “canvas for your child to express their creativity.” Using colored and shaded wooden textures, Bloki provides you with a tray full of parts that can be individually pulled upwards onto a shelf, assembled into a structure, and then mildly interacted with; double-tapping an object makes it rotate 90 degrees and in some cases jump around automatically, disrupting whatever’s on top of it. There’s no audio apart from the sound of the tray sliding open or closed, and the blips of tapping on the app’s few menu options. A child just needs to learn the app’s control system, namely to open the tray, swipe an object up, release, and repeat, which initially seems less than intuitive but quickly becomes easy to follow.
Where Bloki falls apart, in our estimation, is in providing too little reality to go along with the assembly of blocks. Driftlab includes only the most modest physics engine, so apart from watching an object spin 90 degrees when you double-tap it, or effortlessly carry the weight of whatever’s on top of it, there’s little to do except to keep stacking in a manner that’s not particularly realistic. Some parents might enjoy this because it enables kids to create structures in a manner that they couldn’t in real life—the polar opposite of, say, Jenga—but in our view, it’s sort of like drawing a picture with set shapes rather than really playing with blocks. You can decide whether that’s appealing and worth sharing with your children. In any case, it looks nice thanks to its resemblance to Montessorium’s earlier Letters and Math apps; more structure or more realistic physics would make it worth broadly recommending. iLounge Rating: C.
Back in September, we looked at IKnow Cats, an iPhone/iPod touch-only breed guide and quiz game focusing on cats and kittens. Alphablind Studio subsequently released a new version called Cats HD by Nature Mobile ($3, aka iKnow Cats HD), which appears to be the developer’s effort to move towards universal apps in the future. This version runs on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, once again including a relatively modest collection of 45 cat breeds in a filterable directory alongside a quiz game that asks you to identify breeds based on photographs.
While the $3 price is as close to right as Alphablind needs to get with these apps, and universal support is surely welcomed, the iPad version of this app doesn’t feel as device-optimized or as well filled out with content as its canine-themed predecessor iKnow Dogs HD+. Here, the cat photos display in tiny iPhone screen-sized frames unless you click on an icon to expand them, and the list of breeds still doesn’t include many of the types of cats recognized by fanciers around the world. Additional work is still necessary to bring this app up to par with the Dogs version, and with the expectations of prospective buyers. iLounge Rating: B-.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.