Despite the presence of over 500,000 apps on the App Store, applications developed by Apple itself are relatively uncommon; they’ve generally been full-fledged iWork and iLife suite apps such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie, and GarageBand, or much smaller single-purpose apps to handle MobileMe-related services.
With the release of iOS 5 last week, Apple added four more of its own apps to the App Store, expanding the capabilities of iOS devices and offering some unique new features. We take a look at all four of these in this week’s Gems roundup.
Announced at Apple’s October 4, 2011 Let’s Talk iPhone event, Cards (Free) goes beyond traditional e-card apps by letting iOS users actually create and mail physical cards—something that other developers have tried, but without this level of polish. Apple has actually had a Print Products division for several years, allowing Mac iPhoto users to order customized products such as simple photo prints, coffee table books, calendars, and even greeting cards. Apple is therefore already in a great position to handle the printing and delivery of physical cards, and just needed an iOS app to do it. Apple not only prints the card, but delivers it to the recipient on your behalf.
Using the Cards app is relatively straightforward: open the app and you’re presented with a Cover Flow style view of 21 different card designs to choose from. Buttons at the bottom of the screen allow you to filter the list by themes such as Thank You, Holiday, Birthday, Baby, and so forth. It’s also worth noting here that some of the core 21 themes are re-displayed in each category with different category-specific wording. Tap a card and you’re given the opportunity to customize it further by adding photos from the iOS photo library, then entering your own text into pre-defined placeholders. Certain themes can also extract and display location information from photos you add, or use your current location. Buttons at the top allow you to switch between the outside, inside and the envelope, the latter of which allows you to choose addresses from your iOS Contacts for both the sender and recipient, then further customize the addresses directly in the app.
Once your card is ready to go, tapping the “Buy” button in the top right corner will place your order via the in-app purchasing system. The first time you place an order, you’ll need to agree to a set of terms and conditions, enter your Apple ID and password, and possibly verify your credit card information; on subsequent orders only your password will be required to complete the process. After completing the order, you’re given the opportunity to send the same card to additional recipients at the same price for each card. Sent cards are saved within the app in case you want to re-send them again in the future; you can also save cards in progress as drafts.
Apple charges $3 for cards mailed within the U.S. and $5 for cards mailed to international destinations. Non-U.S. users pay a fixed $5 price (or local currency equivalent) regardless of destination. Cards are mailed via standard postal services and U.S. users can take advantage of USPS tracking when mailing cards to U.S. destinations, including push notifications of delivery status information. The actual cards are professionally printed on embossed, card-quality paper, and surprisingly devoid of any Apple branding. We didn’t see an Apple logo or anything else on the back of the card we ordered; even Hallmark doesn’t leave its cards so clean.
Cards represents a unique combination of the virtual and physical worlds, allowing users to very quickly and easily send customized, professionally printed cards for less than the price—and possibly the hassle—of going to a local card shop and then mailing the card yourself. A user can create the card on their iPhone or iPod touch, letting Apple do the heavy lifting of mailing the card out, a great example of iOS and USPS integration. The currently available themes and ease of use add to a great experience, and our only real complaints are three in number. First, while the card stock used for printed cards looks and feels great, it’s suboptimal for printing photos, such that images look roughly the same as one might expect from a home inkjet printer. Having glossy and matte card options would expand the value of the service. Second, the existing card styles are somewhat limited at this point and may get stale after re-use; hopefully Apple will update the Cards app with additional themes to prevent this from becoming a problem. Finally, it would be nice to see Cards as a universal app with native iPad support. Despite the shrugs that this app might have gotten at Apple’s event, it’s a useful piece of software that we see ourselves using quite a bit in the future. iLounge Rating: B+.
Billed as a companion app for its new iCloud service on iOS 5, Find My Friends (Free) represents perhaps the next step in Apple’s Find My iPhone service that debuted two years ago with iOS 3.0. Originally designed to allow MobileMe users to locate a lost or stolen iPhone, the feature was later offered for free and then rolled into the larger iCloud service. Having created an infrastructure for tracking iPhones and other iOS devices, however, it seemed inevitable that Apple would eventually extend this to a more human, social service. The Find My Friends app allows users to share their locations with other iOS 5 users in a private and controlled manner. Once your friends are sharing their locations, you can see in your friends’ list their distance away from your current location, or view all of your friends’ locations plotted on a map.
To begin location sharing, users must request location sharing permission from each friend, who must then accept that request, effectively creating a two-way handshake. You can’t simply share your location with your friends—they have to request your location from you and you then have to accept each request. Further, this only shares your location with them: to see their location as well, you would need to send them a request, which they must then accept. This process is much less cumbersome than it sounds, and is focused on protecting users’ privacy by ensuring they know what they’re sharing and who they’re sharing it with.
Find My Friends also supports a group-based temporary location sharing feature that can be useful for planning a meetup with a group of friends. To enable this feature, you create an event in the app that must include a specific end time no more than two weeks in the future, and then invite users to that event; all users who accept the invitation will be able to see each other’s locations until they remove themselves, the expiry time is reached or the organizer deletes the event. The event can be viewed in your Temporary sharing list with buttons to quickly send an iMessage to all members of the group or view all participants on a single map view. This concept is a big breakthrough for location sharing applications, and nicely leverages some of iOS 5’s best new features.
Although Find My Friends is a separate download rather than a built-in feature of iOS 5.0, it nonetheless integrates tightly with other parts of iOS, including Siri integration on the iPhone 4S and a tie-in to the iOS Restrictions settings. The Siri integration allows you to ask for a user’s location (e.g.“Where is my wife?”) and have it looked up within the Find My Friends app. The Find My Friends restriction setting locks down the friends list from being changed, useful as a parental control to ensure that a child is limited to only a known group of trusted friends.
Ultimately, the Find My Friends app is just another variation on an already common theme—location-based social networking in this case—that has already seen dozens of similar apps appear on the App Store. With Find My Friends, however, Apple has delivered a much cleaner and potentially more ubiquitous solution than most of the other social networking services. Find My Friends dispenses with all of the extra cruft that most location-based social apps include—there are no check-ins, places, deals, reviews or even photo sharing. Instead, the app focuses on doing one thing easily and seamlessly—helping groups of friends find each other and meet up just about anywhere. That feature makes it a nearly mandatory addition to our devices, particularly our iPhones. iLounge Rating: A-.
As the name suggests, Apple’s iTunes Movie Trailers (Free, U.S. only) is designed to provide users with access to trailers, clips and featurettes for both Hollywood releases and independent films on the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad along with images and a calendar of upcoming movie releases. A basic cast and synopsis is provided for most films along with links to related content available for purchase or rental in iTunes.
The app goes a bit beyond viewing videos, photos and basic info, however, also offering local showtimes and theater information, ticket info, links to direct ticket purchasing and the ability to save favorite movies and theaters. Users can also share movie trailer links via e-mail or the native Twitter integration on iOS 5; shared trailers provide links back to Apple’s movie trailers site so that users can view them in any browser. AirPlay support also allows users to view trailers on their Apple TVs, or listen to the trailer audio on wireless AirPlay speakers.
Although iTunes Movie Trailers is a nicely designed app from an aesthetic standpoint, there’s nothing especially different here from the plethora of other movie showtime and trailer apps out there ranging from iMDB to Flixster, many of which provide additional useful information including detailed cast and crew, user reviews and more. It’s also worth noting that even the movie ticket purchasing feature is not integrated within the app—tapping “Buy Tickets” simply opens Safari and takes you to the appropriate online page for ticket purchasing based for that particular theater chain. iTunes Movie Trailers does have the advantage of providing additional video and photo content in some cases—particularly clips and featurettes exclusive to Apple’s Movie Trailers site—and definitely has one of the nicer visual presentations of information we’ve seen, but beyond that there’s nothing particularly new or different here. As a free app, it’s worth a look, but it’s definitely not the only good free option out there. iLounge Rating: B.
Among wireless routers and access points, Apple has always taken a somewhat unique approach with the configuration tools for its AirPort base stations. While the majority of hardware from other vendors almost always use a simple web-based configuration, Apple has eschewed the web-based model and held fast to a standalone configuration utility included with Mac OS X and available as a separate download for Windows. Although this method provides several advantages such as simpler configuration and device monitoring, it also means that platforms without the appropriate AirPort Utility won’t be able to make even the most basic changes to their base station configurations.
As part of Apple’s decision to free its iOS devices from dependency on desktop Mac and Windows PCs, iOS 5 added a simple configuration wizard allowing users to setup a new AirPort Base Station directly from their Wi-Fi Settings. This built-in feature, however, is limited to setting up a new device right out of the box, and doesn’t provide any ability to reconfigure existing devices or set more advanced options. Apple has filled that gap with a its new AirPort Utility (free) for iOS.
AirPort Utility provides almost all of the important features of its OS X counterpart, including the ability to view information on and reconfigure recent model AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express and Time Capsule Base Stations. The app opens with a graphical network topology, letting the user tap on the unit he wants to configure, or tap on the Internet globe to view Internet connectivity settings such as connection status, public IP address and DNS servers. For configuring a base station, AirPort Utility provides the ability to change base station names and IP addresses, Wi-Fi network and guest network settings and passwords, DHCP address ranges, Internet connection type, and passwords. There’s even access to DHCP and NAT port mapping, as well as access control and file sharing, including disk information for a Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme with a USB hard drive attached. Users can also download and install firmware updates from AirPort Utility, and even downgrade a device to an older firmware version if desired, all with simple taps. A list of all devices connected via Wi-Fi can also be viewed along with names, IP and hardware addresses and signal strength. AirPort Utility also integrates into the Wi-Fi settings in iOS 5; recognized AirPort networks will display a “Manage this Network” button that opens AirPort Utility directly.
Although it’s not necessarily designed to appeal to the average user, AirPort Utility is a great solution for people who find themselves needing to reconfigure AirPort base stations on a semi-regular basis, and technical personnel who manage Apple wireless networks will likely find this free utility indispensable. The only major limitation we found was that you must be using fairly recent AirPort hardware—in our testing, a two-year-old AirPort Express 802.11g unit could not be managed with this tool, or even the iOS 5 setup wizard, despite still being supported by AirPort Utility for OS X. The reasons for this are unclear, but it’s an important limitation to be aware of for users looking to manage larger AirPort networks, as it’s unlikely that all devices will be recent models. iLounge Rating: B+.