Welcome to the latest collection of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today’s app roundup is a “catch up” edition, in which we look at several high-profile applications that we skipped when they were originally released, along with one that’s brand new and noteworthy. Below, we discuss two separate Articles apps for Wikipedia browsing on the iPhone and iPad, the TV and movie streaming apps Hulu Plus and Netflix, and finally the newsreader app Times for iPad.
Our top pick of the bunch is Netflix. Read on for all the details.
Having used quite a few Wikipedia applications over the past couple of years, notably including Cooliris’s Discover, we had high expectations for Sophiestication’s Articles ($3/$1, version 1.3) and Articles for iPad ($5/$1, version 1.1.3). Released several months ago, the iPhone version of Articles won a 2010 Apple Design Award with accompanying praise from Apple as “an app that does one thing really well,” so when Sophiestication put both apps on sale for $1, we were really interested in seeing what they brought to the table.
The surprise: not a lot. Both the iPhone and iPad versions of Articles feel like modestly tweaked versions of Apple’s Safari web browser, the iPhone edition with added multilingual toggle and table of contents buttons, Wikipedia-specific bookmarks, and a Safari-like set of multiple windows that reload when you switch between them. On the iPad, Articles looks like Safari set inside a small stack of papers atop a wooden desk. They both take the same approach to formatting Wikipedia’s pages, changing the site’s default sans-serif font to a serifed alternative and removing Wikipedia’s top and right frame bars, leaving the center of the Wiki page to occupy the entire iPhone/iPod touch/iPad screen.
Articles adds only one key thing you won’t find when browsing Wikipedia via Safari—a “Nearby” feature that can use the device’s location services to find Wikipedia content near your current location. But that’s pretty much it. For the current $1 asking price, iPhone users will find Articles to be a less cluttered way to browse Wikipedia than using Safari, but there’s less incentive to spend money on the iPad version given how little it improves upon the larger-screened Safari experience. Should the prices go back up to the normal $3 and $5 per app, we’d be less inclined to jump on these apps, as rivals such as Discover and Wikipanion offer more functionality in similarly nice wrappers for free. iLounge Ratings: (iPhone) C+, (iPad) C-.
It seemed too good to be true: several television networks joined together to launch the web site Hulu back in 2008, offering ad-sponsored access to some of their current and past programs at no charge to viewers. Later, Hulu added movies and additional shows, soon becoming such a viable alternative to buying videos through iTunes that we all but stopped purchasing TV episodes from Apple. The networks’ plan had seemingly worked, denying Apple the dominant place in digital video sales that it had achieved with music. Then Hulu began to suggest it would charge for some of its content—including back episodes of shows—and soon thereafter, Hulu Plus (Free, version 1.0) was unveiled. As the only way to watch Hulu’s videos on Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, the Hulu Plus application is currently in a “limited beta” stage, requiring interested users to wait for invitations before they’ll be allowed to pay a $10 monthly fee to stream Hulu content to their devices.
It turns out that there are a few reasons to like Hulu Plus, starting with its impressively large catalog of well-known television shows from NBC Universal, Fox, and ABC, amongst others. Fans of Saturday Night Live will find at least ten years worth of that popular and long-running show in the Hulu Plus catalog, including the first and last five seasons. Dozens of well-known, historic shows such as Dragnet, Moonlighting, My So-Called Life and the entire run of Arrested Development can be watched episode by episode, and the quality of the videos is almost always great over either Wi-Fi or 3G. Like the free ABC Player but unlike Netflix (below), there’s a lot of great TV content here, and newer shows are frequently streamed in 720p resolution, looking surprisingly impressive on a big iPad screen even when the quality’s been reduced for 3G streaming. Hulu Plus works over 3G on the iPad, iPhone 3GS, and iPhone 4, as well as on Wi-Fi with the iPad, both of those iPhones, and the third-generation iPod touch. A data test showed Hulu Plus was using less than 6MB per minute for 3G video streaming on the iPad, with an estimated hourly bandwidth consumption of 350MB, though that number will vary a little based on a variety of factors. Your last video is always ready to resume as soon as you reload the app if you desire, a handy feature.
But there are also a bunch of reasons to dislike Hulu Plus, starting with its awful and frequent commercial interruptions—something you won’t find on the subscription-based Netflix videos or the pay-per-episode iTunes ones. The commercials can’t be skipped and interject 15 or 30 second delays before and during playback—annoyances that could be tolerated on an ad-supported web site, but not so much when you’re already paying to watch the shows, and possibly again for cellular bandwidth. Hulu’s video player is somewhat restrictive, too: it lacks on-screen volume controls, a fit-to-iPad screen button, and Apple-designed position-scrubbing features. Finally, by comparison even with the B- and C-grade films on Netflix, Hulu Plus’s collection of movies is extremely poor at this point, with fewer and worse offerings than were once on the free Hulu web site, and there are occasionally videos that haven’t been formatted properly: The Office UK episode “Judgement” had letterboxing on all sides, even though other episodes appeared to be fine.
Overall, Hulu Plus has a great collection of television programming and a buffet-style subscription model that might become viable with some tweaking, but its advertising structure, movie offerings, and user interface could all benefit from further work. Our advice would be to pass on spending the $10 for this service until the various Hulu partners figure out a better balance of pricing, content, and advertising—or Apple comes up with something better as an alternative. iLounge Rating: B-.
Over the past two years, Netflix has effectively evolved its original business—renting DVDs by mail—into a broader video-on-demand service that offers subscribers simultaneous access to both discs and online video streams. For several months, iPad users have had access to the official browsing and DVD queue management application Netflix (Free, version 1.0.4), and though there’s still no iPhone version, what the company’s offering is certainly worth trying if you’re an iPad-owning fan of movies. A two-week free trial is available, after which Netflix charges $9 per month for unlimited video streaming and a one-at-a-time DVD mailing service; more expensive packages let you rent multiple DVDs at once.
While there’s little to say about Netflix’s DVD rental queue management software, which works much like the one on its web site to let you schedule physical disc shipments, the company’s streaming video player is solid. Unlike Hulu’s player, Netflix permits you to resize the current video to fill the entire iPad screen, offers an Apple-style position-scrubbing bar and a 30-second skip button, and doesn’t start or interrupt playback with advertisements—a major advantage of Netflix’s videos. When the app’s reloaded, Netflix doesn’t bring you right back to the movie you were watching, but if you go back to the video manually, the app remembers where you left off and starts you there.
When you’re on a Wi-Fi connection, the videos Netflix streams are basically indistinguishable from DVD quality, and thanks to Apple video stream optimization features in iOS, the application provides very watchable streams over 3G as well—they’re more obviously diminished in quality from the Wi-Fi versions than Hulu’s videos, but you won’t have a problem enjoying the Netflix ones except for the cellular bandwidth they demand. (Each minute of a feature film required a little under 7MB of data over 3G in our testing, or roughly 400MB per hour; the exact amount of cellular data you consume will vary based on a variety of factors.) A brief (sub-1 minute) buffering period is all the video needs to get rolling over 3G.
While the quality of the titles in the streaming video collection is so-so at best—it took quite a lot of searching before we could find something worth streaming—the size of the collection is large enough that you’re bound to find at least a handful of interesting movies to watch, and Netflix’s library is growing. Films from Starz have already been added, with new films from Epix and additional content planned for the near future. Recent and past B- to C-rated films comprise the majority of the current streaming library, alongside TV shows such as Lost, at least in the United States. Canadian support is planned for later this year. We get the impression that Apple is going to launch an iTunes-based competitor to Netflix in the near future, potentially with broader international support, but since the two-week trial of this service is free, we’d advise you to give it a try before Apple unveils its alternative. iLounge Rating: B.
As we noted in a Backstage article last month, new applications have enabled the iPad to in some ways eclipse traditional desktop and laptop computers, and newsreader apps are leading the way. These programs aggregate RSS feeds or similar data streams from multiple web sites, and though they’ve been popular on PCs and Macs for years, iPad developers have taken them to greater heights with smart new interfaces—Flipboard, Pulse, and Reeder are just a few of the more noteworthy options we’ve tested in recent months. Acrylic Software’s Times for iPad ($8, version 1.0) is the latest entry into the field, introducing yet another smart idea: it transforms RSS feeds into the visual equivalent of a digital newspaper.
Like each of the aforementioned applications, Times will appeal to a specific niche of newsreader fans—here, ones who appreciate categorized access to customized, multi-column lists of articles. Times auto-scans web site URLs you enter to discover their RSS feeds, then dedicates a column to each feed, letting you choose between fix different mixes of title, text, and photos for each one, plus your preferred number of articles from each source. Column widths can be adjusted to fit up to four columns on a wide page, and each column can conceivably hold more than one news source—sample pages included in Times hold as many as two feeds per column. The result can be a page that’s dense with headlines on one side while mixing photos and text on the other, each column scrolling independently with finger swipes. A pop-open “Shelf” is found at the top of the screen for saved articles. Though Times lets you quickly switch between the truncated RSS version of an article and the full web page it comes from, the Shelf saves only the RSS text for offline viewing.
Where Times succeeds relative to Flipboard, Pulse, and Reeder is in giving the user a lot more control over the layout of its pages—though the results don’t truly replicate a traditional newspaper, they look nice and make very good use of the iPad’s screen real estate. Its use of RSS rather than Flipboard’s dependence on Twitter for feeds is also a plus, and the speed with which you can flip through categorized tabs—each with a name of your choice and a recently updated counter badge—is impressive. There are also some really nice UI touches, such as curled page art at the bottom of every article that can be swiped upwards to return to your RSS lists, and a bookshelf-style rotation effect when you switch from RSS summary text to a full web site article.
But some fundamental RSS features such as feed importation or Google Reader synchronization have been left out, forcing you to manually re-input all of your feeds and forgo desktop sync of previously read articles—these two omissions put Times at a real disadvantage relative to many of its peers. Acrylic promises that an upcoming Mac version of Times will allow feed synchronization with the iPad application, but the Mac app sells for $30—really steep for the functionality that’s being offered here, particularly given how many free and inexpensive newsreaders are in the marketplace already. As nice as its interface may be, the iPad version’s $8 asking price is enough to make the $5 Reeder, $4 Pulse, and free Flipboard apps seem like bargains by comparison. Times on the iPad is off to a good conceptual start and definitely brings some great ideas to the table; further versions and price tweaks will enable it to live up to its potential. iLounge Rating: B-.