Welcome to this week’s first roundup of iPhone and iPad Gems! This collection of recent app and mini-game releases is as varied as any in recent memory, most notably featuring several smart reference and social networking tools alongside a small collection of games and a couple of so-so offerings. Some of these titles are iPad-specific, while others are iPhone- and iPod touch-focused.
Our top picks of the bunch are Airport Remote Monitor and Discover – Wikipedia In A Magazine. Read on for all the details.
The premise behind Sojern’s new Airport Remote Monitor – 100 Airports at Your Fingertips ($4, version 1.0) is frankly pretty brilliant: unlike the one or two-flight tracker applications we’ve tested in the past, this application is designed to give the user a quick overview of all of the flights departing and arriving from a given airport—just like the screens that passengers use inside of airports. Once you’ve chosen an airport—either automatically with the device’s GPS or via a searchable list, the scrollable blue screen includes all of the standard airport monitor information: departure or destination city, airline, flight number, scheduled time, status, and gate information. A nifty tool lets you reorganize the collection of results using any of those headers, so you can quickly compare flights by time or airline rather than an alphabetical list of cities. As the title suggests, over 100 airports are included in Airport Remote Monitor, with plenty of domestic and international hubs to choose from.
Clicking on a listing shows estimated arrival times, the weather in the departure/destination city, and where available, baggage claim details; the status of a given flight can be instantly emailed to a recipient you select. If you’ve ever touched down from a flight and worried about the status of your connecting flight, or if you wanted to know what your alternate options were from a given airport on a given day, you’ll immediately understand why a reference tool like this—accessible from a pocket, on a plane—makes a ton of sense. Though there’s not a lot that can be done to make this app more useful for iPod touch owners, it’s a really neat tool for iPhone and iPad 3G users, lacking only for iPad-specific screen formatting. iLounge Rating: B+.
Until and unless Apple allows companies to sell PDFs in the iBookstore, we’ll be seeing plenty of apps like Cobweb Detective Club ($3, version 1.0) from iPulpFiction.com. Displayed on an iPad, Cobweb Detective Club lets you page through 75 hand-painted pages of a vampire-based graphic novel, which are parsed on the iPhone or iPod touch into over 200 separate frames. There’s nothing more to do with this app than read the story, flip pages, and tap on the bottom of the screen to bring up a scrollable list of pages to skip through; unlike developers that have added interactive elements or animations to their pages, the pages here are flat, without audio or other accompaniment. While the artwork here is nice, the story is—as hinted by the company’s name—B-level pulp, and there’s no ability to zoom in further on the graphics using the iPad, a surprise given the app’s 134MB footprint. Cobweb is also locked into a portrait mode, requiring you to rotate the device around to see occasional two-page spreads. By comparison with the $2 comic books Marvel is selling through its own app, there’s a lot more here for the $3 asking price, but the user interface and quality of the book are a couple of steps below the best standalone book apps we’ve seen on these devices. iLounge Rating: B-.
Accessing Wikipedia on an iPad is as easy as entering that word into the Safari browser, but Cooliris has come up with a nice free alternative in Discover – Wikipedia in a Magazine (version 1.0.1). The concept: use nice fonts, multi-page layouts, and gestures to transform plain Wikipedia pages into something resembling a book, complete with a cover that changes if you shake the device. In addition to offering portrait and landscape layouts of the text and photographs found in any given article, Discover keeps a history of what you’ve searched for and a smart search bar available at all times with upwards or downwards swipes, while a pinch gesture lets you see and click on the article’s table of contents for easier navigation.
A list of related articles makes it easy to search Wikipedia for additional information, while tapping on any word enables it to become a new search term. This is Discover’s only major flaw at the moment—proper names aren’t easy to highlight, so tapping Bob Dylan Pathway may only select and search for “Pathway” rather than the full term; additionally, there’s no obvious rhyme or reason behind the layouts the app chooses for given articles, and some are just plain boring. But as a tool to browse Wikipedia, it’s actually more fun and easier on the eyes than using the original web site. We’d call it close to great for the free price. iLounge Rating: B+.
We first looked at Flipboard Inc.‘s visual social network browsing tool Flipboard (Free, version 1.0.1) a couple of weeks ago when it launched, noting that we were holding off on a full review and rating until the app was fixed. Since then, the company has been rationing out the Facebook and Twitter signups necessary to make the application work properly, and we’ve had a chance to use it extensively as a way to check both updates from these services, as well as ones from sites selected by the company as featured content partners.
The good news: Flipboard’s user interface is awesome. It starts by creating a cover from one of your chosen streams of information, using Ken Burns panning and zooming effects to bring a photograph to life. Using page-flipping gestures and animations, you flip to the table of contents and get a grid with nine user-selectable Sections, two of which are allocated for your Facebook and Twitter accounts, while the other seven are either selectable from Flipboard’s pre-specified list or added via additional Twitter accounts. Once you’ve added a source, the application creates beautiful photo layouts with captions, enabling you to share, retweet, or comment on whatever you see, as well as browsing Twitter or Facebook comments. What Flipboard does, it does so well that you’ll wish you could use it instead of a traditional newsreader, Facebook application, or Twitter application.
The bad news: you can’t. Right now, Flipboard’s reliance on Twitter rather than RSS for its feeds—plus its nine-section cap—really limits the amount and in some cases the quality of information you can browse from the application; it focuses on photo updates, doesn’t attempt to provide complete chronological access to your accounts, and in some cases fails to properly format or even display any of the content it’s grabbing from specific Facebook applications and Twitter feeds. Flipboard is clearly meant to be more of a visual browser and occasional commenting tool than a means to create content on your accounts. When it can replace an app we currently use rather than just adding another tool to the pile, it will be mandatory rather than just a novelty; since it’s free, we’d recommend grabbing it anyway and see how it fits into your life. iLounge Rating: B.
A Japanese puzzle game with various names—picross, nonograms, or griddlers—has been well-represented in the App Store already; Gianfranco Forlino’s new iPad-only release Griddler ($1, version 1.0) offers a relatively plain and uninspired rendition of these puzzles. As an English-localized version of Forlino’s Italian game CruciPixel HD, Griddler overlays a black and white grid with numbers on top of a ragged piece of paper. You use the numbers and a little logic to determine which spaces on the grid need to be filled in, and which must be left blank in order to create a picture. Early puzzles are easy 5×5 grids that can be solved in two minutes, but grow to comparatively complex and more challenging versions that may even require hours. Though the game has 50 levels, it doesn’t give you the ability to choose puzzles—you either start a new game from the beginning or resume where you left off—and the interface for changing grid space colors is primitive, without support for multi-space swiping, multi-colored puzzles, or pencil-marking of spaces, all of which are found in competing apps. While it’s hard to be extremely harsh on this title given its $1 asking price, we can say that we’ve seen much better-developed titles for the same price or less; our temptation would be to buy a more fully-featured title than spend money on this one. iLounge Rating: C-.
Spire’s Ukiyo-ePuzzle HD Hiroshige Vol. 1 ($4/$2, version 1.0) and Ukiyo-ePuzzle HD Hokusai Vol. 1 ($4/$2, version 1.0) have several things in common: they’re grid-based puzzle games, each with eight pieces of classical Japanese wood block artwork that can be divided up into 12, 24, or 54 panels. Each title is silent except when you start, finish, or move a tile within a puzzle—tap on one, then tap on the next to switch their positions—and Hiroshige Utagawa’s version is the easier of the two because its puzzles each have border pieces that can be used to figure out the edges automatically.
While we liked the artwork in both of these titles, particularly the ones in Hokusai Katsushika’s collection, the puzzles are so easy that we blew through both games in less than half an hour, with no reward other than seeing each painting presented with falling cherry blossoms. Even for $2 each, these are of questionable value; we wouldn’t dream of recommending them for the regular $4 asking prices. iLounge Ratings (Both): C+.
Though the plot is over-the-top ridiculous, G5 Entertainment’s Mushroom Age HD ($5, version 1.0) effectively elevates the well-worn “Where’s Waldo?” hunt-for-on-screen-items game genre to new levels with atypically high production values. You play as Vera, whose fiance Tom has disappeared from his job at a lab several days before their wedding, and have to hunt through mostly static screens to find items that will lead to his rescue. Tom’s discarded cell phone works as a time machine, moving you into the past and future as you look for clues, tapping on items as you find them and occasionally pulling them out of an inventory tray to combine them together.
As is typical of this genre, the trick is in looking for specific shapes within deliberately noisy background artwork, a task that would quickly get boring if not for Mushroom Age’s semi-comical intermissions, impressive level-clearing time travel animations, and post-search mini-games. Pre-teens will likely find the game to be corny but amusing enough to play for the five or six hours required to complete the adventure, with numerous on-screen clues to help keep things moving, and an auto-save system bringing them back to wherever they left off. Younger kids will find the searches and mini-games too challenging, and adults will write the story off quickly. This is a good enough game for its target audience, though. iLounge Rating: B.
Last up is True Japanese Sushi ($4, version 1.0.1) from FortuneCookiesPublishing, a presently iPhone- and iPod touch-only application that purports to educate English- or Chinese-speakers on the wide range of sushi available in restaurants. Pictures of different types of sushi are displayed against a black background with white accompanying text that can be flipped between the two languages with a button press, and navigated through either page by page or using a hierarchical menu. Another button pronounces each type of sushi so you can learn to say it in Japanese. While we can’t speak to the quality of the Chinese language work, the English is almost comically bad, making the menus difficult to navigate and the explanatory text tough to read.
“You can eat sea urchin gonad (testis and ovary),” the entry on Uni (sea urchin) says enthusiastically, “it will taste sweet and will melt in your mouth.” “Nattoh is made from soybean and low in fat and has high protein,” explains the entry on Natto (fermented soybeans), “it is one of less expensive sushi so you should try!” On Yude-Ebi (boiled shrimp), “All Japanese, kid to adult love shrimp. It is said that all the shrimp in the world is eaten in Japan.” Anything claiming to be educational should have more and better explanatory content than this, particularly at a $4 asking price; True Japanese Sushi has the navigational and visual infrastructure in place for a great app, but apart from the photography, it will need a lot of additional work to be worth paying for. Also notable: at this stage, it won’t install on the iPad or other pre-iOS 4.0 devices. iLounge Rating: C-.