Welcome to our end-of-week edition of iPhone and iPad Gems. Today’s collection includes 12 apps that have either been recently released or updated with new features—most are too major to qualify for our Small Apps and Updates column.
The top apps in this roundup are Ambiance, Lose It!, Old MacDonald Piano, and UpNext 3D Cities. Read on for all the details.
We first looked at the ambient noise player Ambiance ($3) by Urban Apps two years ago, but the app has transformed so considerably since then that we really wanted to bring it to your attention again. In addition to a completely redrawn and generally impressive new interface for Retina Displays, Ambiance now includes access to a massive library of over 1,000 downloadable free sounds—almost all of them free—and between the pre-sorted categories and the search engine, it’s possible to find pretty much any sort of background sound you’d like to keep hearing through your device’s speaker. We were blown away to find everything from Japanese temple and train station sounds to military themes and a huge collection of different types of elemental samples: showers, dripping water, fire, and bunches of variations on wind. This is the definitive ambient noise generator, and very worthy of our flat A rating; all we’d like to see added at this point is iPad support. iLounge Rating: A.
Water Lou’s Calculator 4 – iPad Edition ($1) is simple: an iPad version of the calculator application built into iPhones and iPod touches. It looks almost identical to Apple’s app, with slightly different colors and higher-resolution versions of the same textures, performing almost exactly the same when rotated into landscape mode as a scientific calculator: the “2nd” function button has been changed in appearance but not in purpose. We’re not going to rate what amounts to a paid cloning of Apple’s work, but to the extent that you’re comfortable with the official calculator and don’t mind that it’s merely upscaled without any better use of the iPad’s screen or functionality, it’s here to be downloaded. iLounge Rating: NR.
After looking at a couple of other applications designed to play videos that aren’t officially supported by Apple in iTunes or its iOS devices, we wanted to follow up on a reader recommendation of CineXPlayer – The Best Way To Enjoy Your XviD Movies ($4) by NXP Software. While we’re not fond of the fact that this application is sold in separate iPad/iPhone versions, with the iPhone version selling for $3 when it could and should be universal, we did like certain elements of the design: it’s the rare app that plays background music while you’re in its menu system, and has a modern though simple interface for playing videos you’ve synchronized through iTunes File Sharing. As the name suggests, it’s solely capable of playing XviD videos, teasing you by synchronizing and listing but not actually playing files in other formats; they’re grayed out so you needn’t even try tapping on them. But then, some other AVI files show up as playable despite the fact that they’re not. What CineXPlayer can play, it presents beautifully on the screen at smooth frame rates with nicely synced audio, but its scope is limited relative to some competitors. iLounge Rating: B..
Google has offered its Google Mobile App (Free) for some time now, but the recent introduction of Google Goggles—a way to do web searches by taking photographs of items and waiting briefly as they’re compared by Google against known objects and words—brought it back onto our radars. Because it requires an autofocus camera, the Goggles feature is only available on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS versions of Google Mobile, and not on the iPad or other devices, but its results are actually somewhat impressive: take a picture of a book cover or a device and Google Mobile can search for it, or something very nearly like it, without forcing you to type anything; take a picture of a piece of paper and the app can often identify the words and do a search to find them online. Combined with Voice Search, which lets you tap a button and use a microphone for searches—offered on most iOS devices—this app can be handy for users who don’t want to use the keyboard but need to access web content quickly. Voice Search is even more accurate than Goggles in hunting down search terms, using technology similar to Apple’s recently acquired Siri Assistant, but with a broader base of recognizable voice input.
Less impressive in Google Mobile is its somewhat scattershot approach to accessing 14 different applications developed by the company, ranging from Gmail to Earth and YouTube, using an interface that looks like it was built for the iPhone and iPod touch without much attention being paid to the redesign for the iPad—or other usability factors. Click on YouTube, for instance, and you’re taken to a web page rather than the iOS device’s integrated browser, even though clicking on Earth launches the dedicated app if it’s installed, and many of the other apps call up web pages that vary between iPhone-optimized and iPad-formatted. While it’s no surprise given its recently tumultuous relationship with Apple that Google hasn’t invested more of its resources in developing iOS-specific versions of its various apps, the companies are setting Google up for a continued second- or third-class experience on this platform. Regardless of past history, Google and Google Mobile would both benefit from a renewed push to improve the quality of this application, which does a very good job with searching but will leave serious Google app fans less than totally impressed by the rest of the experience. iLounge Rating: B.
When we first checked out Conde Nast’s Gourmet Live (Free) for the iPad, the app was annoyingly buggy, evincing a desire by its publisher to rush the digital re-debut of a famously cancelled print magazine without fully working out some of its issues. Gourmet Live today presents a collection of nicely formatted, topically interesting articles about dining and food, including everything from looks at the famous African restaurant Carnivore to the declining cupcake fad, as well as recipes and interviews—very little content per issue, but all nicely presented. The bugs and continued problems revolve around its approach to adding content, which Conde Nast has styled as a “rewards” system for reading, automatically offering you additional unlocked sections such as “Fall Recipes” in a library that grows as you continue to use the app. Early on, adding Fall Recipes seemed to preclude users from returning to the rest of the issue; more recently, the app crashed in a profound way when trying to download another “reward,” necessitating a lengthy reboot and rebuilding of the iPad’s database. Gourmet seems to have a lot to offer in total, assuming that you’re willing to keep up with it on a weekly basis to download more issues; unfortunately, while the concept of rewards and library building is supposed to be fun, it ultimately drags down what could otherwise be a more compelling and less frustratingly buggy app. iLounge Rating: B-.
Running in low-resolution on the iPad but with Retina Display support for iPhones and iPod touches, FitNow’s Lose It! (Free) is a great no-cost app for weight loss planning and tracking. Structured very intelligently to present you with realistic calorie budgets and goals based on your desire to practically shed 1 or 2 pounds per week, Lose It! goes further than other apps we’ve seen by including a really bright “add food” feature that lets you accurately register your intake from brand name foods you’re likely to find at supermarkets and major restaurant chains: a few taps is all you’ll need to add a Five Guys bacon burger, Olive Garden calamari, or Starbucks macchiato with caloric content pre-determined by FitNow. The impact of different exercises can be used as an offset with similar auto caloric calculations, and your daily progress can be logged, tracked, and compared over time with friends if you desire. This is an impressively complete application given that it’s free, and lacking only for a little extra glitz to make it as beautiful as it is functional. iLounge Rating: A-.
Presented solely in landscape orientation and only compatible with the iPad, Miss Spider’s Bedtime Story for the iPad ($8) from Callaway Digital Arts is a premium-priced but also unusually complete storybook application that consists of five sections—all based upon David Kirk’s colorful and charmingly illustrated Miss Spider family of characters. First is a 15-page text story with lightly animated artwork, simple sound effects, and persistent background music—appropriate for kids 4 and up, with touch zones to trigger the animations—followed by a professionally composed, 3-D-rendered 13-minute cartoon video that even younger children can enjoy. As extras, Callaway includes a simple 4×4 tile matching game with characters from the series, a painting feature that includes roughly 10 black and white images that can be drawn on with sixteen colors and five brushes, plus a set of six colorful puzzles with your choice of either 6 or 12 pieces.
While the content in each of the sections is independently a little shy of, say, the Dr. Seuss and Disney applications we’ve tested, and there are little interface improvements that could benefit page-turning on the book, painting, and puzzle assembly—each a little non-intuitive for younger kids—the content here collectively offers pretty good value for the higher price, and presents a nice example for future storybook developers to follow: integrate a bunch of fun multimedia activities into one app rather than releasing three or four. iLounge Rating: B.
We’re always on the lookout for great kids’ applications, and particularly intrigued by Montessori-branded offerings since the debut of Montessorium’s letters and math apps, so we were initially excited to hear about Montessori Crosswords ($4/$2)—a new app that turns out to be from a different developer, L’Escapadou. Unfortunately, though Crosswords uses the Montessori name, it has basically nothing else in common with the apps we’ve previously reviewed, using a comparatively plain interface to present four letter games: one-word, two-word, and three-word crossword puzzles, plus a screen where kids can simply pull letters from the bottom of the screen to form words themselves. The reward is a swipe-controlled image repeating generator that can be stopped by hitting one of the app’s non-intuitive icons.
Tiny artwork is supposed to clue kids in as to the words they’re spelling, but even adult eyes may be confused by L’Escapadou’s renditions of objects such as nuts, and the modest visual distinctions between three-letter items like “cup” and “mug.” While Montessori Crosswords is a fair option for kids four and older, it could really use some work to bring the content up to the standards of the Montessori name. iLounge Rating: C+.
The New York Times Company’s NYTimes for iPad (Free) is version 2.0 of the company’s former NY Times Editors’ Choice app, which was pilloried for including too little of the internationally famous newspaper’s content when it launched some months ago. On a positive note, NYTimes for iPad now has plenty to read on a daily basis, grabbing the most current content from the paper’s web site and presenting it in either tall or wide format depending on the way you hold the device. There’s advertising, of course, but it’s not particularly offensive for a free app, something that may well change when The Times attempts to charge for access starting next year. The real issue is, again, that NYTimes for iPad offers very little that you can’t already get from the company’s web site, which to our way of thinking provides a much better interface on its main page than this app, which fills the screen with one section of the paper at a time, forcing you to switch sections using a modal pane and then swipe through pages of first paragraphs. We love the way the app presents the paper’s photos, text, and videos with style that looks like a natural evolution of the printed edition, but with such a viable web site, we find ourselves wondering why the printed Times should even be considered the template worth replicating at this point. For now, there’s every reason to just visit the dot com and skip the app entirely, though this is—apart from what seem like daily crashes—an improvement on the earlier app, for sure. iLounge Rating: B-.
The late September launch of Kiboomu’s Old MacDonald Piano ($2) was marred by a technical glitch, but the company quickly re-released the application with fixes, and it’s working well now for iPods and iPhones; iPad support is low-resolution, only. As we noted last month, this is the second edition of the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star piano application we enjoyed back in July, featuring a several-verse version of Old MacDonald playing with English lyrics—plus French or Spanish text translations—alongside scrolling musical piano notes or scenes from the Old MacDonald nursery rhyme. You can just listen, sing along, play the piano along with it, or switch to other instrument sounds that are played through the on-screen keyboard. While the visuals remain relatively flat, consisting of farmer on a tractor moving through illustrated background and foreground art, the app’s musical portion is really fun, with a young, happy singer accompanied by sound effects and an occasional farmer’s voice. There’s only a single issue with the audio in this app: it’s really short, ending very quickly given that the song normally runs for multiple repetitions with different barnyard animals, stopping here after only three. Young kids will find enough here to revisit the app repeatedly; parents will wish for added diversity. iLounge Rating: B+.
Our initial excitement over the Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book ($1) dissipated somewhat after launching Disney’s latest application, which to its credit is universally compatible with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Fans of the beloved honey-loving bear and his friends know that they have already appeared on these devices, most notably in the extended, text-rich Winnie the Pooh book given away for free with Apple’s iBooks; somewhat surprisingly, Disney’s paid application goes in the completely opposite direction. Simplified to a level appropriate for two- and three-year olds, this Pooh “book” consists of three intermixed features—the telling of a brief story, interrupted by assembling six-piece puzzles and tapping on honeypots.
While the artwork in the Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book is beautiful, with cute animations and charming audio narration, Disney has either deliberately or inadvertently given the app an Achilles’ heel—over and over, its intermissions repeat the phrase “No honey for Pooh! What’s a bear to do?” until a participating parent begins to feel ill even at the prospect of reloading the app for a second or third time. Apart from the changes in their illustrations, the puzzles are all the same, and the collection of honeypots does little to add to the experience. For $1, this isn’t a bad app, but it’s nowhere near as good as Pooh could do on the iPad. iLounge Rating: C+.
Last but certainly not least this week is UpNext’s UpNext 3D Cities (Free), which we looked at a year and a half ago as the iPhone application UpNext 3D NYC. My, how this app has grown since then. Now iPad-compatible and equipped with downloadable maps of eight major cities—Washington, Austin, Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York—UpNext continues to update its maps with information on all of the businesses inhabiting the 3-D buildings it uses to represent the cities, as well as linking to notes and reviews for many of them, and providing some of the easiest subway line overlays we’ve seen in any map application: travelers can quickly find out precisely which subway stops are closest to the places they want to visit, look up restaurants, and plan fun activities—then access Foursquare friend, checkin, and trending information directly from the application.
Previously, UpNext was a $3 app, so the fact that it’s free now—and ad-supported—would alone make it worthy of preserving its high recommendation, though there are a couple of caveats that are worth noting. First, the app’s UI really could benefit from improved gesture controls, as it’s too easy to start spinning around the maps and not easy enough to usefully shift the 3-D perspective; UpNext has clearly tried to find a good compromise between allowing tilting of its maps and offering reasonable performance on Apple’s devices, but we can’t help but feel that the current graphic engine’s only modest perspective adjustment falls short of the map content’s incredible potential. Additionally, our attempts to call up reviews for businesses on the map were not always successful, with extended loading times even over Wi-Fi that sometimes yielded nothing even when the map showed that data was available. Still, UpNext offers so much high-quality content for free that we enjoy keeping it on our iOS devices; we continue to feel strongly that it or something like it will be the next generation of maps from Apple or one of its major competitors. iLounge Rating: A-.