Welcome to our latest app-focused version of iPhone and iPad Gems. Today, we’re taking quick looks at three recent app releases that were worthy of brief reviews—iOS clients for popular web sites, including Bing, Facebook, and Twitter.
Our top pick in the bunch is Tweetbot – A Twitter Client with Personality. Read on for all the details.
To the best of our knowledge, there has been close to no demand for Microsoft to release Bing for iPad (Free), an iPad-specific alternative to just using the Safari web browser to load the company’s search engine. But that didn’t stop the company from releasing Bing anyway, and though the app has some fundamentally unimpressive user experience elements, it also has managed to create the equivalent of a start page that even Apple could learn from.
At its core, Bing isn’t much more than a wrapper for Safari, with a set of buttons at the bottom of the screen that provide instant weather, a news ticker, one-click access to Bing maps, movie listings, trending topics, and stock market summaries. Click on the buttons and you’re taken to sliding panes for each of these Bing features, complete in some cases with Pulse-style scrolling lists of thumbnailed top stories that can be clicked upon to take you to web pages. Bing borrows Google’s microphone-aided search feature—it works fine—if you don’t want to type, and provides a further list of buttons, including image, shopping, and video search features if you want to dive into them. We had mixed results playing back videos due to some format incompatibilities, and at times found web pages less easy to navigate than just using Safari on its own—delays and some odd UI conventions were to blame—just some of the issues that made loading Bing less preferable than relying on an unencumbered browser.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Microsoft does have something here: it is effectively using Pulse, Flipboard, and other iOS apps as inspirations to provide an app-based portal that can be used instead of relying upon separate weather, map, and stock tracker apps, tying a bunch of alternatives to Apple’s integrated iOS apps together with a pretty-looking search page. It’s not so much that Apple should be forcing its users to swallow something similar every time they launch Safari, but rather surprising that it hasn’t offered an optional page like this of its own to make use of the iPad’s large screen real estate. Bing isn’t an app we’d prefer to use, but the ideas here are good ones, and may prove potent in the hands of a different developer. iLounge Rating: B-.
Facebook has completely dropped the ball by failing to release an official iPad application for its popular social network, and left third-party developers uncertain as to how much effort to put into homebrewed alternatives. Napkin Studio’s Friended for Facebook ($1, version 1.1.1) benefits chiefly from actually having tried to rethink the way Facebook should look on the iPad, more effort than we’ve seen from certain rivals that have borrowed much of their functionality from the little-known touch.facebook.com mobile site.
Friended divides the screen into two portrait or three landscape columns, either giving Recent Pictures its own column on the left of your Facebook timeline, or squeezing it into the right column with scrollable lists of Recent Friends and Friends Online for Chat—tapping on a friend’s profile fills your whole screen with everything from their photo albums and mutual friends to their timeline. The upper left of the screen provides two-tap access to the main page, your profile, groups, pages, and friends lists, plus one-tap friend requests, inbox, and notification pop-overs. Friended’s upper right includes a status update composer with link and photo features, plus a search bar with buttons for “friends,” “everyone,” “pages,” and “groups.” Between these and some timeline column sorting buttons to let you see only statuses, links, photos, videos, notes, or groups, Friended’s layout actually turns out to be surprisingly powerful and well-organized, even if some of the features take a little experimentation to fully appreciate, and aren’t perfectly implemented.
Take Friended’s photo-posting feature, for instance. You can select a photo from your iPad and even take a photo with your iPad 2, both huge omissions from the Safari version of the site, but you can’t caption or tag the image before sending it. Video uploads aren’t supported, either. Similarly, you can start chats with friends who were online as of when you opened the app, but the app doesn’t seem to persistently monitor their comings and goings, so you might or might not be able to see who’s currently online and available to talk. Thankfully, you can respond to friends who chat you up, and maintain a list of chats that appear and disappear in a pop-up window. There’s no support for this in the Safari version of Facetime.
What Friended brings to the table isn’t trivial: Napkin Studio has managed to do a little bit better in some ways than the best of the earlier iPad Facebook clients we’ve seen, combining a more thoughtful user interface with at least a couple of major features that remain absent from the Safari version of Facebook. That said, it falls short in other ways, and each of the third-party app developers feels as if it’s trying really hard—too hard, actually—to offer a user interface that Facebook itself might approve of, rather than something really visually distinctive and groundbreaking. Pick Friended over Social if you want to make the most of your iPad’s screen at a given time, or Social if you need extra frills such as photo captioning. iLounge Rating: B.
When Twitter released its official and free application for the iPhone and iPod touch, then added iPad support, many third-party developers wondered whether there was any room left for other options—particularly paid ones. Somewhat surprisingly, Tapbots didn’t give up on its then-gestational project Tweetbot – A Twitter Client with Personality ($2, version 1.0.1), which has finally been released after roughly a year of development. While our editors were split on whether it was worth paying for Tweetbot in light of its iPhone/iPod touch-only design and lack of truly breakthrough features, there’s little doubt that its interface offers some great visual and feature benefits for fans of Tapbots’ robotic UIs.
The core of Tweetbot is exceptionally similar to the official Twitter app’s iPhone and iPod touch UI, relying initially on the same general placements of buttons at the top and bottom of the screen, only with modestly redrawn icons and light bars rather than dots to indicate new tweets. Apart from slight changes in color scheme, the apps look a lot alike—until you start looking for the differences. A couple are obvious: the last two buttons on the bottom of the screen can be switched from default starred tweets and search features to become retweets and/or lists; access to settings is offered solely through at the bottom of the list of all of your accounts, found by left-paging back to the main screen.
Other new features are spotlighted in introductory screens: you can switch your timeline to display list content by tapping on the word Timeline at the top of the screen, a handy feature, and more interestingly, you can swipe left or right on any tweet to attempt to view related tweets or the conversation the tweet is a part of. You can also double-tap on any tweet for details, including the device from which it was posted, the number of the tweet, related and conversation tweets, plus retweets, and tap + hold the tweet for options such as posting, copying, e-mailing, and translating. Most of these features fall into either the “user interface refinement” or “power user” category—they’re either in Twitter but not as easy to get to, or seemingly only a minor update away—but Tapbots has clearly moved the needle forward by including everything that it has. A triple-tap feature, included to let you either reply, retweet, favorite or translate as you prefer, is another example of a way that this developer expands on the official app with a “have it your way” UI addition; numerous options for photo sharing services and other settings are also appreciated.
From our perspective, it’s these little tweaks that justify Tweetbot’s existence, though the polish on the UI will be the draw for other users. As with all Tapbots apps, Tweetbot animates all sorts of little things beautifully, from the best-looking pull/release to refresh graphic we’ve yet seen—a glowing circle—to spinning dials to indicate the loading and unlocking of related tweets as you swipe on text. The app isn’t heavy on sound effects, but the ones that are there are charming, and you can disable them either partially or entirely from the settings menu. Tweetbot’s only obvious miss is the absence of an iPad UI, which in our view really should have been included for the asking price here. That said, if you’re willing to cough up any sort of cash at all for a Twitter client and want something that evolves the official app, this is worthy of a download, and will impress you with its thoughtfulness and utility. iLounge Rating: B+.