Welcome to this week’s app-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at five applications: two are for kids, notably including a new word-teaching application from Duck Duck Moose, and three are for adults.
All of this week’s titles merited at least our general-level recommendation, but our top picks in the collection are Adobe Photoshop Express 2 and Shape-O ABC’s. Read on for all the details.
We covered Adobe Photoshop Express (Free) last year when it was at version 1.3.1, adding universal iPad support to the previously iPhone/iPod touch-only application, and now that the app has hit version 2—more specifically version 2.0.730187, as the app says—we wanted to revisit it, particularly in light of the release of the iPad 2 with integrated cameras.
Most of Photoshop Express’s features remain the same from what we described in last year’s review, so users of most of Apple’s iOS devices can change the exposure, saturation, tint, contrast, and angles of their images, as well as cropping, rotating, flipping, and applying filters for colors, softness, and sharpness. On the iPad, these tools are on the bottom of the screen; the other devices place the icons at the top, with cancel, undo, redo, and save tools as icons rather than iPad-styled text to save space.
New in version 2.0: the free version of the app adds an integrated camera application that presently only works on the iPhone and iPod touch, not the iPad 2, enabling the smaller devices to capture photos as well as editing them. It also adds a new filter, Reduce Noise, which works on all three types of devices to visibly decrease the grain in photos—a feature that works particularly well on the low-grade, noisy cameras found in the iPad 2 and iPod touch 4G. You swipe on the screen to control the effect, preserving more or less center detail as speckles are eliminated, taking photos from “ugh” to “not too bad” with a simple gesture or two. And a new camera feature provides 3- or 10-second timers, plus a 2- or 5-second optional “auto review” for pictures if you want to see what you’ve snapped before grabbing another frame.
The only hitch with these features: most of them are locked behind a $4 in-app purchase called “Camera Pack,” which Adobe reminds you of with the equivalent of pop-up ads whenever you go to press the icon for an unavailable feature. A “+” pops up to sell you the Reduce Noise filter when you go to edit a photo, and the timers on the camera similarly inform you of your purchase options. Coming upon the ads is an annoyance, but then again, the app is otherwise free, and offers plenty of functionality if you don’t buy anything. While the in-app purchase price might be a little too high given the modest value of the timers, there’s no question that the Reduce Noise filter alone is a useful addition to Photoshop Express, particularly for users who are trying to make lemonade from Apple’s lemony low-res cameras. This still remains a great free app, but we’re not as enthusiastic about the implementation or price tag for the in-app scheme at this point, resulting in these separate ratings. iLounge Ratings: A- (Photoshop Express) / B+ (Camera Pack).
We missed it when it was released last year, but given the release of the camera-laden iPad 2 and updates to Photoshop Express, we wanted to bring the useful app PhotoPal ($3) from MacPhun LLC to your attention. Like Photoshop Express, PhotoPal effectively steps in to fill some of the gaps left between Apple’s simple Photos app for iPad devices and its more powerful iPhoto for Macs, adding editing tools that can only be used on the iPad and iPad 2 at this point in time.
Three tabs at the upper-right corner of the screen provide access to separate tool sets for “Light & Color,” “Edit Image,” and “Effects,” the former offering brightness, color balance, temperature, exposure, gamma, highlight, hue, saturation, levels, and shadow controls—plus denoise and sharpening tools—while the others include alignment, crop, spot healing, and filter features. Unlike Adobe, which turns each of its tools into a single simple swipe gesture, MacPhun sometimes gives you more complex and powerful controls—twin sliders for noise reduction, or a combination slider and tappable point for spot healing, the latter feature novel to PhotoPal but not particularly well implemented. A proper healing tool akin to the one found in the full-fledged version of Photoshop would give PhotoPal a real edge over Photoshop Express.
To the extent that PhotoPal offers iPad users some extra tricks for $3 that can’t be found in even the $4 in-app purchase-enhanced Photoshop Express—Redeye Reduction, Flickr sharing, and at least limited Spot Healing amongst them—this is a very nice little alternative that will help some users do simple photo editing on the road. That said, Photoshop Express has it outgunned on device support, integrated camera functionality, and an initially low price tag, plus soft focus and some other filters. Hopefully, this app will receive an update in the near future to add iPad 2 camera functionality and other goodies. iLounge Rating: B+.
Released last month, Shape-O ABC’s ($2, version 1.01) is developer Bellamon LLC’s entry into the “simple educational puzzle” genre for kids—a slightly different spin on Darren Murtha Design’s Shape Builder, which we’ve previously reviewed. Both titles challenge young children to move shapes around the screen to assemble objects, but Shape-O goes a little further, using smaller pieces and letters that increase the dexterity required, and teach spelling at the same time.
Over 100 different puzzles are included in Shape-O, each consisting of an object that needs to be assembled by swiping pieces from the left side of the screen to the right. Buttons at the top of the screen switch the color palette, offer piece-by-piece assistance, and turn on or off the game’s music—a happy little tune that continues to play through the menus and the puzzles. Just as with Shape Builder, Swipe-O requires the player to come pretty close to proper placement of each piece before sliding it into place, but handles perfect placement on its own, and reduces confusion for young kids by avoiding rotation and flipping.
We really liked almost everything in Shape-O; though it’s not as energetic at the end of each puzzle as Shape Builder, we appreciated that it offers the ability to choose any puzzle at any time, the addition of spelling and word lessons, and the pleasant background music. While it could stand to separately reward the player for completing the word and completing the art, rather than waiting until both have been finished to speak the word, we’d leave pretty much everything else the same… except for its iPad-only design. Shape Builder is an iPhone/iPod touch app that scales up to the iPad screen with ease, and Shape-O is iPad-exclusive without the ability to run on the smaller devices. These issues aside, it’s a really nice little puzzler for kids, and highly worthy of its $2 asking price. iLounge Rating: A-.
Duck Duck Moose has previously established itself as one of the top developers of edutainment titles in the App Store, so we now wait with true excitement for each of its new releases, just wondering what it will come up with next. Out of the blue, the company released Word Wagon – by Duck Duck Moose ($2, version 1.0), a brand new spelling- and word-focused app for kids that builds upon its earlier Park Math.
Seemingly inspired somewhat by Pixar’s Ratatouille, Word Wagon features a new character named Mozzarella the Mouse (“Mozz”) and a companion called Coco the Bird, who together ride on side-scrolling conveyor belts that are either divided into categories—animals, food, vehicles, numbers/color, household items, and favorites—or lumped together in a large collection of over 100 words. While riding the conveyor belt, Mozz will keep walking and jumping over objects until you tap on one to select it, at which point several boxes will appear above a collection of three or more scattered letters.
On higher difficulty levels, the boxes are empty; on lower levels, they indicate which letters you’re supposed to place inside with swipe gestures. Successfully assembling each word leads to it being spoken aloud with either reinforcement of the letters, phonic pronunciation, or an example of usage, depending on the setting you choose. It’s highly similar to word assembly titles we’ve previously reviewed, but with the expectedly cartoony and friendly Duck Duck Moose wrapper.
As with all of Duck Duck Moose’s titles, Word Wagon offers charming audio and visual rewards for children as they play. In addition to the now-standard inclusion of happy string music and voice samples, successful completion of words earns stars that can be used to assemble constellations in the sky, and there’s even an introductory movie in the title for the first time in the company’s history, showing Mozz, Coco, and other animals near the Eiffel Tower in France. The production values are generally great for a $2 app.
On the other hand, Duck Duck Moose has for whatever reason left out Retina Display support for new iPhones and iPod touches—a modest omission given the quality and quantity of the art that’s here, but one that we noticed soon after first trying the app and watching its video content. There’s also still no high-def support for the iPad, an omission we’ve noted in the company’s past apps, as well. But if you can put these issues aside, Word Wagon is another charming little app from a continually solid edutainment developer. It’s certainly worthy of your attention if you don’t already have something similar in your collection of kids’ apps. iLounge Rating: B+.
Last but certainly not least this week is Zite (Free, version 1.0.1), the latest iPad-only application to combine magazine- and eBook-style design sensibilities with a locked-down RSS newsreader. The first time you run Zite, you’re presented with a list of categories—“sections”—to choose from, highly simplifying the task of creating a magazine-like collection of content with articles that you might enjoy, while leaving the others behind. Your selected sections run in a scrollable column on the right side of the main page, which aggregates top stories from all of the sections in a swipe-ready set of starter pages. Selecting any of the sections filters the aggregated content down to only that specific topic, with a new set of swipable pages indicated by dots at the bottom of the screen.
One of the great strengths of Zite is its ability to be customized with topics outside of what’s initially proposed by the app; type “iPod touch” and it will find news sources relevant to that topic. In what initially appears to be an even more exciting crossover into the world of RSS reader apps, it can link directly to your Google Reader or Twitter account. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to actually display content directly from either source; instead, it uses them to try and figure out what you’d like to read from Zite’s existing list of publications and feeds. This process could have been executed a lot better—simply displaying everything inside of a Google Reader’s list of RSS feeds would have been fantastic.
We’d care to use Zite because its user interface is otherwise really impressive. The index pages it automatically creates include five stories to choose from, and clicking on each story brings up a cleanly-formatted title, author name, timestamp, and article complete with easy to read text and in-line images. You can switch between three font sizes and either serifed or sans-serif fonts, instantly access personalization (More like this/More about this) and sharing features (Twitter/Facebook/Instapaper/E-mail), and hit a single button to call up the original web version. It’s all fast, attractively presented, and quick to reformat for whatever the iPad’s orientation might be.
Each app in Zite’s general orbit, including previously-released titles such as Flipboard, Pulse, Reeder, and other news-centric RSS readers, has specific assets and omissions that will endear it to some users while boring others. Zite’s only obvious problems are in the quality of the results it displays for any of is categories, which have a tendency to seem somewhat randomly selected and not particularly well-sorted by importance—a non-trivial issue for a news-gathering app—and its inability to make better use of its connection to Google Reader or Twitter to display content. Its strengths are in offering an extremely clean method of checking the day’s news across multiple categories, and arriving at a price tag of $0. If you’re a fan of news aggregating apps, this one’s worth seeing, though like Flipboard and Pulse, you’ll likely hope for even more customization options soon after discovering its charms. iLounge Rating: B.