Welcome to this week’s edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at five recent app releases that are primarily iPad-focused, though one—Calcbot from Tapbots—also runs on iPhones and iPod touches. Though the others might seem a little dry at first, they’re actually some of the most interesting apps we’ve seen in quite some time, blending high-quality graphic designs with reference and/or productivity features that some people will find to be extremely useful.
Our top pick in this collection is Popplet Lite. Read on for all the details.
After the success of its earlier robot-themed tool applications Weightbot, Convertbot, and Pastebot, the developers at Tapbots went back and updated all of their apps with iPhone 4 compatibility, then released a fourth one: Calcbot—Calculate Intelligently. Currently priced at $1 with a likely $2 asking price in its near future, Calcbot is noteworthy in that it’s the first Tapbots release that looks fundamentally different when used on an iPad, though it’s also unusual for this developer in that it overlaps a lot with the Calculator app included with every iPod touch and iPhone.
On pocket devices, Calcbot initially appears to be little more than a reskinned version of Calculator, using Tapbots’ familiar metallic interface and sound effects to modestly update Apple’s three-year-old iPhone app. Small button changes on the main screen include a new delete key for correcting input mistakes—useful—plus square root, normal exponent and engineering exponent keys rather than the memory keys found on Apple’s Calculator, while the numeric display has been split into two rows so that the smaller bottom one can show you an entire multi-step computation before you hit the equal button to perform it. Swipe on the screen and you can pull up a collection of additional scientific calculator buttons, a trick that works to expand Calcbot’s computing abilities, but is more complex than the orientation rotation trick Apple developed to add similar features to Calculator.
Where Calcbot steps beyond its free rival is “History,” a tape feature that actually records your calculations for later reference—another useful addition if you’re trying to do more than just one-off math problems. On the iPhone, History is available if you swipe to look above the calculator’s screen, but on the iPad, it’s given the right half of the screen automatically when the device is in wide orientation, and hidden otherwise. By splitting the screen of the iPad, Calcbot loses some of the cool “discover the robot’s tricks” feel of the iPhone and iPod touch version—typically one of two selling points for Tapbots applications—but it also becomes a little more useful without having to screw around. The results and expressions on the History list can also be individually copied and pasted back into Calcbot, copied out of the application, or e-mailed. You can decide for yourself whether this feature and the standard—if somewhat limited—Tapbots UI reskinning merit a dollar or two of your cash; our feeling is that the History feature will alone justify the app’s existence for some users, but its handling of the scientific calculator functionality is clumsier than it should have been. As much as we appreciate the great UI work Tapbots has done in the past, Calcbot highlights some of the new visual and interface challenges presented by Retina Displays and larger iPad screen; a little extra work could polish this app to make better use of Apple’s newer devices. iLounge Ratings (iPhone/iPod touch): B / (iPad): B-.
The iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 both include Compass, a free Apple-developed application that does little more than show your current orientation and map coordinates—albeit with an attractive-looking classical compass in the center of the screen. Fishbone Studios’ iPad-only application Compass HD ($2) is at the core an unabashed copy of the iPhone Compass, but adds improvements that impressed Apple enough to earn it a “New and Noteworthy” spot in the App Store, regardless. First and most interestingly, four themes are available, swapping the almost nautical look of the Apple design for the more neutral Compass HD Black, the more ornate Wooden Sailors Compass, and the hip, feminine Trendy Purple Compass and Happy Flowers Compass designs. All of the themes look great, even though they’re just replacing Apple’s art with more detailed art that’s similarly only modestly animated.
A few little changes to the app’s functionality help Compass HD to achieve a measure of usefulness that Apple missed in its version. You can tag your current location with both a name and additional descriptive line that will be displayed on the screen, and use the compass with a list of previously recorded locations to find your way from place to place—Compass HD tells you how far you are from your destination while providing your current heading, latitude, and longitude. For users who want a general sense of where they need to go, indicated with big art and text rather than the finer details found on the iPad’s included Maps application, Compass HD is a nice little app. iLounge Rating: B.
Though we’re not going to fully review it today, we wanted to mention a just-released application called Flipboard (Free) from Flipboard, Inc., which has considerable potential but unfortunately is getting crushed under the weight of early publicity. Billed as “the world’s first social magazine,” Flipboard uses the iPad screen to aggregate RSS, Facebook, and Twitter content into a neatly organized and highly visual grid, serving as a magazine-like wrapper for text and photo content. Due more to excellent graphic design and typography than anything else, Flipboard does such a nice job of presenting content—photos with transparent pane overlays, scrollable pages of RSS content with pop-ups to let you know what’s on a page before you go there, and Twitter comment side-bars—that you’ll just want to turn over your favorite content to it for browsing purposes.
The problem: as of now, it’s just not working properly. Facebook and Twitter logins are both crashing, and there’s no way to manually add RSS feeds—only “Sections” pre-selected by the developer—leaving the app to function as little more than a flipbook of content that may well not be of personal interest to you. We’re looking forward to revisiting this application when it’s functioning as it should, as its user interface, page-flipping transitions, and other design choices are really impressive; if it becomes as customizable as it should be, it could be an awesome addition to any iPad. iLounge Rating: N/R.
After playing with Notion’s free demo application Popplet Lite for some time, we decided to hit the “Upgrade” button and buy the full version of Popplet for $9—a relatively steep sum by App Store standards. The reason: Notion has created a legitimately useful and cool new diagramming tool that makes strong use of the iPad’s touchscreen interface, and we wanted the opportunity to actually do things with the chart we’d created in the free version.
Popplet lets you generate and customize a collection of linked pop-up bubbles, adding text, sketches, photos, and colors to each bubble. Related bubbles are created by tapping and dragging on dots off to an existing bubble’s side, forming line links, while free-standing bubbles are made by double-tapping anywhere else on the app’s empty desktop-like surface. You can change your view of the collection of bubbles at any time, and the full version of the application lets you maintain multiple Popplet screens, each with PDF or JPEG exporting capability—the free version has only one screen and limits its output to JPEGs.
We’ll praise Popplet for two reasons: elegance and utility. By limiting the app to a bubbly, friendly font, similarly soft rounded rectangle shapes, and super-simple tools, Notion enables users to focus on quickly creating clean associational charts that contain plenty of useful, easily organized information. It was almost instantly obvious how to use and make the most of the application, and we quickly found ourselves diagramming out business concepts—as alternatives, Notion’s App Store page shows sample “NY Notes” with destinations, physical and web addresses that could be used to plan a trip, and laid out photo albums, too, alternative uses of Popplet that just make sense given its capabilities.
But Popplet has a couple of big limitations that take it out of our highly recommended category—at least, for now. We were really disappointed that the “upgrade” button in the free version of the application didn’t enable us to carry over the content we’d created to the paid version. On a related note, and despite all of the app’s other great features, Notion hasn’t yet implemented a way to move Popplet files between devices or platforms. Being able to create PDFs or JPEGs is fine if you’ve completed a diagram and just want to dump it off your iPad, but that assumes these creations are going to be finished by one user, then abandoned. There’s great collaborative potential in these diagrams, but no effective way to actually work on them with other users. For this sort of price, we’d expect to have the option to share Popplets with other users and continue editing them outside of the iPad app, perhaps using a PC/Mac tool—Notion’s web site suggests that a web-based solution is currently in beta form. It wouldn’t hurt the full version of the application to include some templates or graphic design tools to enhance the look of finished diagrams for presentation purposes, either. The future ability to do more with Popplet files may eventually justify a $9 price tag, but at the moment, you get nearly as much from using the free application as you do after buying the paid one. Additional development and pricing tweaks have the potential to make Popplet an even more compelling application. iLounge Ratings: B+ (Free), B- (Paid).