Welcome to this week’s first edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re focusing primarily on a collection of educational applications for kids, but we also take brief looks at several non-educational apps we’ve been testing on the iPad and iPhone over the last week or two.
The top picks this week are three iPhone educational apps: Fish School, iWriteWords, and Shape Builder, but readers interested in travel, voice-assisted searching, and using their iPads as keyboards or trackpads for their Macs should read onto the second half of this article, as well. We’ve opted to hold off on rating the non-educational apps for the time being.
If Japanese isn’t the most difficult language to master, it’s most likely in the top three or five, and the complexities of its three separate alphabets—hiragana, katakana, and kanji, the latter comprising the entire Chinese writing system—would be to blame. Olsonvox’s AIUEO-Hiragana for iPad ($5) doesn’t attempt to take on the daunting task of teaching all of these alphabets, nor is it cross-compatible with both the iPhone and iPad—the developer unfortunately and unnecessarily sells this app in two separate versions for separate devices. Instead, it solely attempts to teach the hiragana alphabet through a system of intuitive but rote memorization. A separate version of the app does the same thing for katakana.
The premise: you’re shown what looks like a blank sheet of paper, a series of five differently-colored characters representing “ah,” “ee,” “oo,” “eh,” and “oh,” the basis for almost all hiragana letters, then quizzed on which consonants various letters represent. “Sa shi su se so,” “ma mi mu me mo,” and later, “ba be bu be bo” with “pa pe pu pe bo,” their more modest character differences illustrated with nothing more than an appearance on screen with a voice sample that plays when you touch them. After a very extended series of simple quizzes, the title ends. Assuming you repeatedly run the app over and over—rote memorization—you’ll probably remember the hiragana characters eventually, but having gone through AIUEO-Hiragana from beginning to end, we felt like we’d learned little about the hiragana shapes or comprehension, and rather had merely matched sounds using a grid. You can decide whether a simple app like this is worth $5 per version per platform, but our view is that it’s too limited and too pricey: one app with hiragana and katakana that runs on iPad and iPhone alike would make a lot more sense for $5. iLounge Rating: C+.
A couple of weeks back, we looked at Duck Duck Moose’s Fish School HD, a seriously charming iPad application that teaches the alphabet, basic counting, shapes, colors, and differences using aquarium art, music, and voice samples. We’ve since had the chance to try the company’s iPhone version Fish School ($1), which is identical except for the resolution of its artwork, and sells for half the price—judged solely on its own merits, it’s equally worthy of our high recommendation, and we mention it today to help bring it to more readers’ attention. But rather than rehashing our prior review, we wanted to mention just a couple of factors that might help developers of iPad and iPhone educational applications going forward.
The key point that needs to be made is this: developers should seriously think twice before releasing separate iPad and iPhone versions of applications, particularly educational ones. Fish School illustrates how a user will have the choice between buying a $2 “HD” app that runs solely on the iPad, or paying half the price for an “iPhone” app that runs on both devices, only with lower-resolution graphics. As parents ourselves, we’d have to say that we’d be more inclined to buy the lower-end, cheaper version that’s multi-device compatible. The solution for developers isn’t to differentiate the HD version and try to make customers buy both versions, but rather, to offer the premium HD version with downward iPhone/iPod touch compatibility, while selling the purely iPhone/iPod touch version at a lower price.
We mention this in the case of Fish School because the two versions are so similar to one another that separate apps really weren’t needed—the HD version has the same audio, the same features, and even the same visual limitations. Each version creates letters, shapes, and numbers from the same number and size of fish, such that the fish comprising letters of the alphabet are in some cases (such as M, Q, and W) just a little too big and too few in number to properly define the lines of the shapes. Even if this might be necessary—it’s not—on iPhone’s cramped screen, there’s no reason for this on the iPad, where the fish could easily be made a little smaller and more numerous to provide better definition of the letters and shapes.
Duck Duck Moose deserves considerable credit for Fish School, regardless. This educational app makes excellent use of the iPhone and iPod touch screens and audio capabilities, delivers an arguably superior overall educational experience to its already impressive prior applications, and has been in very heavy rotation on our devices since we downloaded it. We’d recommend it as a must-see for parents of young children; the only major way to make it better would be to make the aforementioned behind-the-scenes tweaks to its iPad and iPhone/iPod touch software engines. iLounge Rating: A-.
The recommendation for iWriteWords ($2) came from a friend who placed this letter-tracing educational app in her iPhone’s top five, and we can understand why: this is a cute and fun way for kids to learn the alphabet. Whereas Fish School focuses on the sounds of letters, iWriteWords separately teaches drawing of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and numbers, using traceable shapes to have the child draw lines and curves that form characters. Once the character is formed, you need to tilt the iPhone or iPad to make the letter disappear into a vacuum at one corner of the screen before moving on—a full word mode has you complete several characters in a row, then clear them together. It’s surprisingly fun, and you can enable or disable sound effects for applause or a child’s voice to accompany the tracing.
As much as iWriteWords nails the iPhone format, however, the iPad implementation is a little less impressive. Initially, the app was iPhone-only, and to developers Gdiplus’s credit, the app is now universal so that it fills the iPad’s screen rather than running in an emulation window. But it now basically fills the screen with blank space, doing little more than presenting its prior graphics at their old resolution and making it harder to move the completed letter and number blocks into the vaccum to move on. Larger, higher-resolution art would have been a better use of the iPad—even running the old iPhone version in 2X mode was frankly superior to the current iPad experience, as it allowed for bigger letter-tracing on the bigger display. We’d recommend iWriteWords, regardless, but with a stronger rating for iPhone users than iPad ones. For the time being, the free demo iWriteWords Lite runs solely in iPhone mode on the iPad, demonstrating how the tracing could work on the bigger screen. iLounge Rating (iPhone): A-. iLounge Rating (iPad): B.
Kids love puzzles but tend to lose pieces—just one of several reasons that app-based puzzles could work really well on iPhones and iPads alike. Released last year but only recently coming to our attention, Darren Murtha Design’s Shape Builder ($1) shows how it could and should be done for young children: the screen is divided roughly into halves, one with an empty shape, and the other with scattered pieces that need to be dragged into the correct spots within the shape. Rather than complicating the process by letting the pieces rotate around, Shape Builder just has the player drag the pieces from one side of the screen to the other, locking the piece automatically in the correct spot when it’s dragged there.
While this sounds extremely simple—and is, for adults—really young kids will find the simple dragging and positioning gestures to be challenging, and the developer correctly targets Shape Builder at 3-6-year-olds, rightly noting that 2-year-olds will need coaching at first. The reward for success is seeing and hearing the completed shapes come to life: there are 146 puzzles in the full version, with numbers, letters, musical instruments, animals, and other items each popping with colorful artwork, properly pronounced words, and nice sound effects as they’re finished. While we’d easily recommend this application for parents of young children without the need for a demo, the free Shape Builder Lite lets you sample 15 puzzles to get started. iLounge Rating: A-.
The iPad’s 1024×768 screen has had an interesting and unexpected benefit: it has pushed some web developers to rethink and improve their prior multi-window, multi-page sites for a more efficient single-screen layout. So while KAYAK Flights (Free) isn’t the ideal implementation of its concept—provide a simple flight-finding service with car and hotel options—what’s here is actually surprisingly powerful: you’re given a left “flight search” pane with “from” and “to” choices, calendar-based departure and arrival dates, and easy buttons for customizing the search, a central pane with your search history and suggested deals from your chosen departure airport, and a list of hotels in your arrival city. You can get a big overview of many options on two screens: one for the search, and another for the results.
But Kayak’s results are a little more limited than we’d prefer. They don’t canvas certain budget airlines—a common enough problem, but one that yields less than complete information on your options—and both hotel and car searches lead you into the Safari web browser to see Kayak’s site rather than either an in-app browser or in-app dedicated pages, so you’ll need to manually return to the app when you’re done. Want to book a flight you’ve found? You’re given the telephone number and a web link to handle the booking separately. Are there reasons for these inconveniences? Sure, and good ones, assuming that Kayak doesn’t want to share 30% of its revenues with Apple. But a front end for a search engine that gets you only half way towards your goal suggests that an iPad-friendly redesign of Kayak’s own web page would do users more good than a dedicated app that can’t finish what it starts.
We were interested in checking out Siri Assistant (Free) for one reason: Apple recently acquired the app and developer, which suggests that it had come up with something that might well become a major feature in upcoming iPods, iPhones, and iPads. That something is obvious: after setting up an account with Siri, the application uses your voice or the keyboard to search for businesses or other information matching your requests: “I’m hungry for tacos” leads the app to search for restaurants in your area serving tacos, “can you get me showtimes for Iron Man 2” brings up exactly that—plus a trailer and reviews—and “tell me what the weather is in Cupertino, California” displays a full forecast with tabbed results across doppler radar and three types of satellite maps. All of the results are displayed in a scrollable list so that you can make a number of different requests, then move through the returned results on one page in whatever order you prefer.
In the United States, at least, Siri’s voice recognition is fast and accurate, the results it returns are surprisingly complete, and the collection of things it can do—help you find a taxi, locate a post office, or even post status updates to Twitter just using your voice and a confirmation tap on the screen—is pretty impressive. But the app doesn’t offer international support yet, and the voice features obviously require either a device with a built-in mic or the connection of an external microphone, a la the current-generation iPod touch. As a next-generation addition to the Voice Control features of today’s iPhone 3GS and iPod touch models, it’s going to be pretty amazing; right now, it’s certainly worth downloading and trying for yourself.
We covered Edovia’s TouchPad for the iPhone and iPod touch back in September, 2009, and have been playing with the iPad update since shortly after the new device appeared last month. The premise is the same: version 3.2 of TouchPad ($4) can transform your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch screen into a large trackpad for your computer, while offering a button that brings up one of several optional keyboards, as well. Wi-Fi is used to transmit your on-device gestures to the computer, and after an initial setup process, works relatively easily so long as the iPad/iPhone/iPod and computer are on the same Wi-Fi network.
TouchPad now offers a host of features that will appeal to users: on the iPad, the on-screen keyboard and touch surface are both large enough to replace full-sized alternatives, even when used simultaneously, and you can flip between dedicated controllers for Front Row, iTunes, QuickTime, Boxee, Windows Media Player, and other media player applications, as well as a collection of keyboard shortcuts ranging from minimize, close, and cut, copy, and paste to arrow and page up/down keys. Macs, Windows PCs, and Linux boxes are now both supported, as well. The only issues are less than completely fluid performance—there’s sometimes a little lag between your gestures and on-screen cursor movement—and the somewhat complex steps TouchPad uses to pair your device with the computer. On a Mac or Linux machine, you need to follow a list of directions to set up Screen Sharing; on a PC, you need to download a free VNC application. Most users will find the steps easy to follow and the results worth the modest effort and $4 asking price; further simplifications and performance enhancements would only make this universal application better.
Last but not least is Twittelator for iPad ($5), an iPad-specific update to an application that felt extremely cluttered on the iPhone. However it happened, developer Big Stone Phone used the iPad for a comparatively elegant, attractive redesign of the application that looks and feels really impressive, dividing the wide screen into a Twitter timeline, a multi-purpose window, and a floating collection of buttons that let you switch between direct messages, mentions, your profile, and various types of searches, amongst other features. Everything’s presented on top of your choice of background wallpaper, which for whatever reason helps Twittelator for iPad feel far less like it’s wasting the iPad’s screen with nothing more than paned lists—a problem we’ve had with other messaging clients on this platform.
There are reasons that some users mightn’t like Twittelator’s design, particularly multi-account users who will realize that they need to manually flip from account to account using a button at the top of the timeline—these people might well be better off with the competing iPad app TweetDeck. But there is so much to like here, including within-timeline displays of photos, one-tap access to web links, profiles, and composition tools, and search features, that we’ve found ourselves using and really enjoying this app despite some of its small functional shortfalls. We’re holding off on a revised rating for this application until we do a more complete iPad Twitter roundup, but for the time being, there’s no question that Big Stone Phone has done a very, very good job with this version of its app—we wish the iPhone version would learn a little from its uncluttered, clean redesign.