Welcome to this week’s edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today’s collection of apps is another buffet of options without any particular focus, but there’s a little something for everyone inside: a great new edutainment book for kids, a cool head-tracking technology demo, an alternative web browser, a video calling app for iPad 2 users, and a good (but raunchy) book for adults.
Our top pick of the week is Dano Pirate & The Numbers. Read on for all the details.
Other than the fact that it’s needlessly separated into iPhone/iPod touch and iPad-only versions—both identical, just differently priced and with an aspect ratio tweak—Bambino Avenue’s new Dano Pirate & The Numbers / HD ($2-$3, version 1.0.0) is a seriously cool new edutainment app for kids. Best enjoyed by children three and up, Dano Pirate teaches numbers and counting through a series of exercises that include drawing numbers, identifying them, learning where they sit in sequences, and understanding how the numbers can be applied when counting similar-looking items.
Each of the exercises is illustrated, animated, and accompanied by a mix of voice samples and music—fun, age-appropriate pirate and princess-themed content that could as easily have come from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker as a small, independent developer. Whether it’s viewed on the iPad or on the razor-sharp Retina Display, all of the content is cute, professional, and compelling enough to keep a child’s interest across multiple iterations of the same games. Stickers are given out as rewards for proper play, a really smart touch that appeals directly to the age groups targeted by the app. After an initial 20-minute session, our nearly three-year-old tester wanted to come back again and again for additional play time, a great sign, and we enjoyed what we were watching enough to want to be part of the action.
Apart from a sure-to-be-fixed bug that keeps looping the same traceable number on screen rather than moving between different digits—just one part of a much bigger app—the various tapping activities all worked really well, and together do a great job of teaching numbers. If this were a universal app, we’d recommend it unequivocally to every iOS device-owning parent with young children; in its current bifurcated form, it’s still worthy of high recommendations. iLounge Rating: A-.
Generally, we don’t see any point in recommending that average readers download iOS technology demos—software that’s just there to show something can be done, without much of a practical implementation—but like Epic Games’ incredible video game engine demonstration Epic Citadel, the “glasses-free monocular 3D” app i3D (Free, version 1.0) by University Joseph Fourier is worth checking out if you’re curious as to what the future may hold for 3-D graphics on iOS devices. The app is extremely simple, presenting a series of polygonal scenes that look as if they were cobbled together using a very basic 3-D engine and the Mii avatars from a Nintendo Wii.
But it includes a new technology—front-mounted camera-assisted head tracking—that is capable of shifting the 3-D perspective of what’s on the screen based on the location of your head. i3D shows you clearly how software can recognize a face like modern digital cameras, then track it as it moves in different directions, using its perception of the user’s location to dynamically shift everything from the perspectives of tower-like boxes and floating bullseyes to the location of a bulge in the screen. While i3D can get messed up in darkly or brightly lit rooms, it does a good enough job of tracking head motion under normal lighting conditions to be interesting, and there’s even a demonstration of how an alternative iPhone home screen could hide layers of status bar information—notifications, calendar information, and more—behind a bar that’s only visible when you shift your head’s perspective, along with sets of icons you can access from the screen’s sides.
As with most tech demos, i3D isn’t worth paying for in and of itself, which is why it’s free, but there’s little doubt that when this technology is implemented in next-generation apps, games, and possibly even an operating system, the end results will have plenty of value. This approach to 3-D is going to be a lot easier on the user than wearing 3-D glasses or trying not to get sick while using glasses-free 3-D screens. i3D is a universal app with support for all iOS devices with front-facing cameras; we’re not issuing a rating, but again, it’s worth seeing. iLounge Rating: NR.
As fans of MTV’s Jackass series, we were initially excited to see the App Store release of Jackass: 10 Years of Stupid ($5, version 1.0), an iPad-only “book” that is designed to be enjoyed with the device in landscape mode. Depending on how much you’re willing to explore some of Jackass’s less than entirely intuitive screens, you’ll either find the experience to be akin to reading a photo-heavy coffee table book, or more like an evolved multimedia experience that leans heavily on imagery. Either will be good enough to sate most Jackass viewers, but additional work would have made this reasonably priced app truly great.
Readers will have these different experiences because Jackass uses an interface that’s equal parts innovative and annoying. On one early page, for instance, you’ll see the first of the show’s creators depicted in front of a rainbow, implicitly promising a story about the show’s humble beginnings. Unfortunately, the rainbow is inconveniently obscuring the same-colored “more” button that leads to pages of additional, scrolling text, so you’ll wonder whether to swipe to the next page—a video of Chris Pontius as Satan—or to tap on a navigation button at the bottom of the screen. In either case, you’ll skip right past the text and wind up in something more graphical; the latter calls up a dual-layer bar that initially cuts the book in three sections, then with second and third taps can bring you to over 40 different sections of the book. Only upon further examination will you discover that there are actual stories to be read inside, and though they don’t look to have been run by an editor or grammar checker, they’re compelling. That is, when the rainbow’s not obscuring parts of the text, too.
On other pages, Jackass presents you with Internet-streamed videos—connection-dependent, of course—and rewards you for tapping pictures and icons by presenting larger pictures and very small snippets of text. These are basically captions that have been hidden rather than displayed along with the pictures. Some of the text is little more than a list of names of people in the photographs, and thereby hardly worth the tap it takes to bring up the caption, or the second tap it takes to go back to the photo. Videos are generally low-fidelity, and presented on an on-screen TV with letterboxing despite the fact that both the clips and iPad have a 4:3 aspect ratio.
If you can look beyond the app’s UI and small technical issues, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in Jackass: 10 Years of Stupid. The book covers everything from the initial development of the show to the middle of development for the film Jackass 3D, leaning largely on behind-the-scenes photos and interactive content rather than videos as the narrative moves past the TV show into the movies. Not surprisingly, the stories and photos are frequently profane, full of juvenile humor and insane stunts—just like the films, though not as shocking, apart from the frequent flashing of genitalia and use of language that Apple hasn’t exactly embraced warmly in past apps. For the $5 asking price, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan. iLounge Rating: B.
The iPad has an integrated and generally very good web browser in Safari, so there needs to be a pretty good reason to spend anything to replace it. Kikin ($1, version 1.0.0) from Kikin Inc. takes a stab and doesn’t particularly succeed or fail—it just is what it is. The key feature is a start-up page that tracks your most visited web pages and lets you save others for one-tap reference, avoiding the need for traditional bookmarks. Additionally, you’re able to maintain multiple tabs with individual web pages inside, and there’s a bar of special buttons that are supposed to find relevant videos, photos, and other pages relevant to whatever you’re looking at.
During our testing, the buttons couldn’t find “relevant results” for videos, photos, or related pages even when provided with easy examples—a page full of SNL Digital Shorts, for instance, or our own Mac, iPhone, and main index pages. The single best feature was the addition of tabs, which do make flipping between multiple pages easier, seconded by the list of previously oft-visited pages, but we’ve seen those features before elsewhere. As web browsers go, Kikin’s not bad, but we’d lean heavily towards using the bookmarks we keep already in Safari rather than switching browsers just to get a couple of intermittently useful features here. iLounge Rating: C.
There are so many instant messaging options available for iOS devices these days—each only really usable one at a time, juggling back and forth with push notifications—that it’s hard to really get excited about using more than one unless they offer something truly different and compelling. The new version of Yahoo! Messenger from Yahoo! (Free, version 2.1) now has a couple of advantages in its corner: it’s the first app with an iPad interface to support free video calling, and also includes free voice calling, photo sending, text messaging, and traditional instant messaging. All of these features assume that you’ll sign up for a free Yahoo! account, and that your friends and family have done so, as well.
Some users will find that the video chat feature alone justifies the free download—it enables iPod touch 4G, iPhone 3GS/4, and iPad 2 users to make video calls to one another, using up to 640×480 video that’s upscaled to fit the screen. Unlike Apple’s FaceTime, you can make and receive calls over both 3G and Wi-Fi, which is to say that users with unlimited 3G data plans or no concern about using plenty of bandwidth on limited ones have a viable iPad 2 and iPhone 3GS/4 alternative, one that’s better-equipped than Fring on large tablet screens. Over Wi-Fi, the video looks smooth and decent enough—not quite up to FaceTime standards, but not bad, either.
Unfortunately, while the various instant messaging features all work generally as expected from iOS device to iOS device, they’re spottier when you try to connect with a computer on the other end. Text and picture sharing over IM worked in our testing, as did voice calling—albeit with murky audio, sometimes halting—but video calling’s a no-go from either direction. We also noticed a number of bugs, including login problems when trying to load clients on computers and iOS devices, formatting problems whereby sequential messages started to overlap on top of one another in a chat window, and occasional failure to send message errors. Between these problems on iOS and additional issues with its Mac client software, Yahoo! has some additional work to do to make Yahoo! Messenger a truly great service across multiple devices, but the support for iPad 2 video calling is welcome, regardless. iLounge Rating: B-.