Welcome to this week’s app-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems. Today, we’re looking at three interesting and free applications from different developers: Bongiovi Acoustics, AOL, and TiVo. The first is an audio processing app, the second a new music social networking app, and the third is a scheduling and remote interface for a well-known family of digital video recorders.
Despite their low prices, none of the apps reviewed in this column qualified for our general or high recommendations this week, but all three could become more compelling with future updates. Read on for all the details.
Though it was previously responsible for tuning the performance of in-car audio systems, Bongiovi Acoustics really made a name for itself in the Apple accessories market with the debut of iHome’s iP1, a premium speaker system that leveraged Bongiovi’s audio tuning to improve the sonic quality of its output. We mentioned at the time that one of the iP1’s signature features—a “B” button to deactivate the Bongiovi processing—wasn’t valuable because it was basically a “turn off the good sound” feature; now Bongiovi wants to add a B button to your iOS device with its new universal app, Bongiovi DPS (Free).
The idea behind this app is noble: Bongiovi Acoustics knows that users aren’t able to get optimized sound from their headphones, speakers, and in-car accessories, due as much to iOS equalizer limitations as the user’s lack of interest in fiddling with settings, so it’s taking a brute force approach to making things better on its own. Bongiovi’s engineers plan to manually test as many headphone, speaker, and docking accessories as possible, creating optimized audio profiles for each. You’ll then select the profile for your accessory, and play your music, videos, and podcasts through the Bongiovi DPS app, rather than through Apple’s. Tracks will sound better through Bongiovi DPS, and you won’t have to fidget with anything besides selecting your preferred accessories.
There are a couple of hitches to this strategy. First, the DPS app isn’t as fully functional as Apple’s iPod, Music, and Videos apps; it cannot play DRM-protected pre-iTunes Plus tracks, an issue the app explicitly blames on “Apple limitations,” and the app also locked up on three different devices for reasons unknown when trying to open a list of videos. Second, the number of profiles is extremely limited at this point. The free app supports Apple’s free Earphones, the speakers in the iPad/iPad 2 and iPhone 3GS/4, and a set of five Dock Connector settings that Bongiovi calls Annapolis, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Philidelphia (sp) and Toledo, offering different combinations of the 120 “recalibration points” the company says it uses in optimizing audio in real time for various devices. If you want more profiles, there’s a currently $1 in-app purchase that removes banner advertising from the app and gives you access to all of the accessory profiles Bongiovi has developed—the company will charge only $1 until it has 100 custom profiles to sell. But as of today, the paid app adds only 13 pairs of earphones, zero additional speakers, and zero additional docks, not exactly a huge variety.
Since the Bongiovi DPS app does actually improve the quality of sound when it’s activated—music played through the iPad 2 and iPhone 4 speakers showed marked treble/mid-treble (and hence apparent clarity) improvements when the B button is being used, as did Apple’s single-driver Earphones and dual-driver In-Ear Headphones, the latter of which have more roundly been criticized for their lack of bass. In any case, it’ll be worth revisiting this app at some point in the future if and when additional profiles and file compatibility are added. It will also be interesting to see whether Bongiovi makes per iOS-device adjustments for the subtle generational differences that are often made to their sound chips. For the time being, this is a nearly recommendable free app; when the videos bug is fixed, it’ll be worthy of a general-level recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.
Apple’s Ping service hasn’t taken off, and probably won’t without major changes, but that hasn’t stopped other companies from trying to hook iOS users on music-centered social networking services. This week, AOL debuted PLAY by AOL Music (Free, version 1.0.0), an app for iPhone and iPod touch users without full iPad support, and the implementation is a little smarter than Ping: PLAY leverages your existing Facebook and Twitter accounts to find friends and share what you’re listening to, pushes a bunch of free streaming song and album content to your device in the form of a grid of album covers, and creates a timeline showing what’s been “shared” or commented upon by all of the people you’re following. The concepts are all solid, and apart from its lack of iPad UI, the interface is actually quite nice, but PLAY has the same limits you’d expect from every fledgling service: too few users and too little compelling content of its own.
PLAY’s five tabs include access to your music library through Music, a list of what people you’re following are hearing called Feed, the grid of free music called PLAY, a list of liked, shared, and commented-on music called Alerts, and Profile, which lets you add friends, change your profile, set up notifications, and create privacy settings. Reasonable people will disagree as to the value of the Feed and Alerts—do people really want or need to be discussing or sharing the music they’re hearing, let alone with two separate lists? But the main piece of genius AOL brings to the table here is coupling its social and discovery features within an iOS music playback application rather than nestling it within the iTunes Store. PLAY is wisely designed to let you do these sorts of things and hunt for additional music while you’re already listening to music, rather than assuming that you want to have discussions while shopping. It wouldn’t be any surprise to see Apple follow AOL’s lead here, particularly with the iPad, which has never made great use of the full screen for music playback.
As noted about, the issues with PLAY are predictable. So few people are using the service at this point that you’re unlikely to find your friends on there unless you invite them, and the free discoverable content AOL is offering is very substantially from indie/unknown artists; consequently, when you “share” most of what you’re hearing with your friends, all they get is an easily clicked link to hear the iTunes Store sample of the song. Additionally, the grid of albums looks really nice on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G Retina Displays, but the art all blends together, providing almost no clue as to what’s inside until you start tapping around to bring up descriptions. For now, this feels like a “so close, but not quite there” tool for new music discovery and discussion; with time and additional development work, it—or something Apple develops—will likely become a bigger deal for iOS users. iLounge Rating: B-.
Without putting too fine of a point on it, we’ve been so profoundly disappointed by TiVo’s evolution over the last couple of years that it was easy for us to “cut the cord” and dramatically reduce our cable television service in favor of increased Apple TV and Netflix use. TiVo’s belated January 2011 release of an official iPad application called TiVo (Free) didn’t do much to help matters, as it debuted solely with support for less than year-old TiVo Premiere boxes, freezing out owners of the company’s Series1, Series2, Series3, and HD devices. Making matters worse, the app used its incompatibility as an excuse to try and upsell users to Premiere hardware, an obnoxious twist of the knife for customers who believed in the company enough to pre-purchase Lifetime Service for its prior devices.
It took TiVo nearly six months, but the company this week finally updated the TiVo app to version 1.5, adding “limited support for TiVo Series 3, TiVo HD, and TiVo HD XL DVRs.” And by “limited,” TiVo means two things: “modestly useful” and “buggy.” Paired with TiVo HD, the app lets you view an attractively designed program guide that can’t be used directly with the device—instead, it sends recording commands back and forth over the web using your TiVo account, and therefore can’t guarantee scheduling requests made with fewer than 36 hours lead time. This is highly unfortunate, as the location-aware and service provider-specific program guide is so easy to browse and so well laid out that users would love to just tap on a show and start watching or recording it, but TiVo apparently hasn’t made the firmware changes to its boxes to enable this. In our test of how long it would take to start recording live using the scheduling system, a request sent at 2:54PM was confirmed at 3:40PM—long enough that a live one-hour program would have been almost entirely missed for no good reason.
There’s also an on-screen version of the TiVo remote control, complete with all of the expected buttons and bolstered by a pop-up virtual keyboard that can help with searching and other occasional data entry needs. While the remote and keyboard could have been designed more impressively, they do work, assuming that you follow the app’s step-by-step screenshots to set the TiVo unit up to receive commands from a remote. We were able to figure out what to do relatively quickly, though the screenshots didn’t precisely match up with the words and options on our unit’s on-screen menus. Once setup was complete, we were able to control the TiVo either through button or gesture interfaces, and both were pretty responsive until we unexpectedly received network disconnection notifications.
For whatever reason, the TiVo app was unusually susceptible to network connection problems and other issues during our testing. Error messages came up with astounding frequency: some proclaimed an inability to find either of the TiVo units on the network, others reported lost connections, and still others noted unspecified problems requiring a restart. On one particularly bizarre occasion, the app lost connectivity in the middle of communicating with a TiVo HD unit and reported—using the old error screen—that it was only capable of working with TiVo Premiere hardware.
Our overall experience with the app led us to feel that it was very limited in functionality, and even moreso in reliability. In an era in which its DVR services are rapidly losing ground to on-demand video streaming and cable company rivals, TiVo continues to provide very little evidence that it knows how to keep its users satisfied. Merely releasing an iOS app without persistent connectivity and other errors would definitely have been a good place to start; including direct on-device scheduling without significant lag times would have been great, too. In the absence of that, we may occasionally turn to this app as an alternative to the TiVo remote, but if the networking issues aren’t fixed, we suspect that it’ll be bye, bye time for our TiVo gear. iLounge Rating: C-.