Welcome to a special Apple application-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Over the last two weeks, Apple has released both new and updated apps for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users, expanding both its growing collection of shopping tools and the capabilities of its web-based MobileMe subscription service. The four applications we look at today all depend on an active Internet connection, and include Apple Store, Find My iPhone, MobileMe Gallery and MobileMe iDisk, tools to locate Apple products and access media from wherever you may be located in the world.
Our top pick is the new version of MobileMe iDisk, which has seen significant improvements for iPad and iOS 4 users in particular, but all of the applications merited at least our general recommendation. Read on for all the details.
At some point, everyone—including Apple—will start asking just how many standalone but related apps people want to keep on their devices, but for now, the assumption seems to be “a lot.” Consequently, Apple’s release of Apple Store (Free, version 1.0.1) is the fourth separate Apple-owned store application for iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, following the previously-debuted iTunes, App Store, and iBookstore, the latter located within iBooks.
Apple Store is a pocket-sized version of Apple’s store.apple.com web site, which is focused on selling Apple hardware, accessories, and Mac software, as well as providing information on the company’s retail locations throughout the United States and world. In application form, Apple Store offers a “Featured” list of products Apple is promoting, a “Products” tab with sections devoted to sorted iPhone, iPad, Mac, and iPod product listings, and a “Stores” section with both a locator and reservation system for nearby sales and service. Notably, the individual product listings have been compacted relative to the ones on the web-based Store, with fewer pictures and in some cases less information, as well. There’s also a dedicated “Search” feature to let you hunt for anything sold at the Store—with online ordering only for most products, rather than in-person pickup—and a Cart to show you what you’ve selected to purchase.
There’s nothing fancy, unexpected, or particularly impressive about this application: it’s merely an iPhone and iPod touch-optimized alternative to using Apple’s web site, without any iPad support at the present time—a surprise and a miss given that Apple Store launched on the same day as iPhone 4 preorders, months after the iPad’s debut. The recent version 1.0.1 update added iPhone 4-optimized but still squint-induing graphics that interestingly don’t display in higher resolution on the iPad screen, a suggestion that a bigger 1.1 update is in the making with iPad compatibility. While there’s a lot of impressive code under the hood of the Apple Store app, bringing everything from the web site’s prior Concierge functionality to its catalog and ordering capabilities into a streamlined little package, there are also some glitches; graphics on some listing pages display improperly and the nearby store locator came up with an unnecessarily distant store by default in our testing. These are small problems, but underscore that the only real reason to prefer this app to the web-based Store for now is the lack of real estate on the little iPhone and iPod touch screens. Hopefully Apple will use future updates as opportunities to make the shopping experience more compelling, and perhaps even to offer existing customers an advantage for shopping with the company’s devices. iLounge Rating: B.
Apple’s MobileMe service continues to be available for $100 per year as a subscription-based e-mail, contact, calendar, and media sharing tool for users, and the rest of the apps in this roundup are all solely for MobileMe subscribers. First is Find My iPhone (Free, version 1.0), an iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch-viewable version of Apple’s iOS 3/4 device location service. Using the GPS and pseudo GPS features found in the touchscreen products, Find My iPhone enables an owner to locate them either roughly or precisely—actual GPS hardware enables more accurate tracking—assuming that the device has been manually registered for the free tracking service beforehand. This registration process is less than intuitive, hidden within the device’s Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars menu rather than the more obvious Settings > General > Location Services, or better yet, an as-yet-uncreated higher-level settings menu. Regardless, owners have successfully used Find My iPhone to retrieve stolen and lost Apple hardware on numerous occasions, though one iLounge editor’s wife decided that it wasn’t wise to show up at a thief’s house when her iPhone was stolen recently while on vacation.
At least Apple gives users that option. After entering in your MobileMe account name and password, Find My iPhone brings up a Google map showing one of your devices, and allows you to switch between tracking whichever devices are currently turned on. At that point, you have the ability to display a message and force the playback of a sonar-like sound on any device, remotely lock its contents with a four-digit code, or remotely wipe it, at which point you won’t be able to find it using the service any more—should the thief erase the device, it’ll become invisible to Find My iPhone, too, a bummer given that the serial number and other details of the hardware remain intact. Not surprisingly, the app works as well as the web-based interface Apple previously rolled out for Find My iPhone a year ago, and requires no special setup once installed on an iOS device, grabbing all of the registered devices’ details automatically from MobileMe. Even if there’s a question as to the value of an iPhone-finding app that runs on an iPhone, Apple pitches it as a way to use a friend’s or second device to find and get back what you’ve lost when you’re not around a computer, and as more iOS devices proliferate, that’s more realistic than it would have been two or three years ago. If initially activating Find My iPhone and keeping it activated after a theft was easier on all of the iOS devices, the app and its associated services would go from nice to great. iLounge Rating: B.
Though it has been around for some time now, Apple’s latest version of MobileMe Gallery (Free, version 1.1.1) from Apple is worth briefly revisiting in light of a re-release that has added iPhone 4 support. Also designed for MobileMe subscribers, Gallery provides logged-in users with the ability to view both their own and friends’ galleries of photos and videos that have been synchronized to MobileMe’s servers—effectively a web-based expansion of the iPhone and iPod touch Photos application, though like the Apple Store app, without native iPad support at the moment.
You’re shown an organized grid-like display of photos that have been synchronized with iPhoto, plus movies that were either synced or sent directly from an iPhone 3GS/iPhone 4, and have the ability to automatically locate and view public galleries from friends with MobileMe. Click on any thumbnail and the image or video streams to your device, consuming as much of the screen as possible, complete with audio in the case of movies and zoom-in capabilities for photos. iPhone 4 users can now see higher-resolution images when using Wi-Fi—a smart way to conserve bandwidth over the cellular network—and though it’s not part of the Gallery app per se, can also benefit from being able to share their higher-quality videos over MobileMe’s servers rather than in cut-down form through e-mail. Though MobileMe Gallery would benefit considerably from adding an iPad interface or just seeing its features integrated directly into the Photos application, this is another good application for MobileMe users, and provides a very easy solution for sharing content via e-mail links. iLounge Rating: B.
Last but not least in the new Apple applications list is MobileMe iDisk (Free, version 1.2), which has received the most significant UI overhaul of the bunch. By default, a $100 MobileMe subscription gives you 20GB of online storage, which can be upgraded to 40GB or 60GB for additional $49-$99 annual fees. When setting up MobileMe, you can choose how much of your 20/40/60GB total to allocate to e-mail and iDisk, which defaults in the basic subscription to a 10GB drop box for photos, music, videos, PDFs, and other files you want to share between devices or access from the web wherever you may be. The MobileMe iDisk application is a browser for the password-protected iDisk drop box, giving you one-tap access to files and a default folder hierarchy to categorize them if you choose.
What’s new in iDisk is iPad-, iPhone 4-, and iOS4-compatibility, changes that collectively let MobileMe subscribers make considerably better use of the web-based storage solution. The key benefits of the new iDisk are iOS4-related—with multitasking support, the application actually lets you continue to stream music in the background directly from your iDisk, assuming that you’re using an iOS4 device, currently excluding the iPad. This feature alone can expand a space-constrained iPhone or iPod touch into a wireless repository of music, assuming that you’re willing to take the battery hit required to continually download audio from Apple’s servers; as before, you can also stream videos to your device from the iDisk, though the streaming and playback both stop when you exit the application. Videos and photos can take advantage of the iPhone 4’s and iPad’s higher-resolution screens, and the iPad gets a split-screen paned landscape interface, allocating roughly 2/3 of the screen to displaying videos, documents, or a QuickTime music player while the other third provides the same file browsing interface found on Apple’s smaller devices. One-tap file sharing, management, and link e-mailing tools are also available.
The only major issue with MobileMe iDisk at this point is the sluggish speed of its PDF viewer, a common problem across multiple Apple PDF-dependent applications at this point, though it does offer a feature that lets you move PDFs over to faster third-party apps and even iBooks if you desire. Going forward, it would be great to have the same ability to transfer music and video files directly to the on-device library, as well. Otherwise, this free application adds a lot to the iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads of MobileMe subscribers, and iOS 4 users will find it an exciting prelude to the “cloud” storage, web-ready version of iTunes that’s anticipated for release in the near future. iLounge Rating: A-.