Welcome to this week’s non-gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we look at a small but diverse collection of applications that range from another iPad Facebook browsing tool to a digital dog breed book, an alphabet teacher for kids, an HDR camera tool, and a novel approach to offering streaming access to over 6,000 popular songs in one app.
Our top two apps in this collection are Nick Jr.‘s A to Z with Moose and Zee, and Melodeo’s Top 100s by Year. Read on for all the details.
When we looked at the iPad-specific Facebook application Social a couple of weeks ago, we skipped right over an alternative called Friendly – Facebook Browser ($1, version 2.0) from Oecoway, which turns out to be more established and less expensive than Social. But it’s also not a very good alternative to just using the Facebook web site, its touch-optimized version touch.facebook.com, or Social, which dramatically outstrips it in ambition.
Friendly is effectively just a for-pay reskinning of the touch.facebook.com interface with a handful of small changes. The same content is displayed with the same top-of-screen tabs, albeit with font changes, adding a search bar at the top of the screen rather than the search icon found on the free web site, plus a small switch to indicate a toggle between Live and News Feeds. You can comment on posts but not share pictures—an issue addressed by Social—and for most intents and purposes, the experience is just like using touch.facebook.com. Only when you click on a web or photo gallery link does the app do something really different, bringing up the web link in a window rather than changing pages a la Safari, and photos in a gallery view that provides a somewhat more iPad-like interface for browsing images. There’s also a Facebook Chat feature with its own dedicated page, replacing functionality lost on the iPad when using the Facebook web site but recaptured with Social.
It’s sort of amazing to see an app like this trade so transparently on Facebook’s own web site without making big improvements, yet amass literally thousands of customers—this is a sign of the tremendous continued interest iPad owners have in a dedicated Facebook application, as well as evidence of their apparent lack of knowledge that touch.facebook.com offers a nearly identical user experience. If it wasn’t for the Chat feature here, Friendly would have very little to offer Facebook users, and even still, we’d take Social any day of the week given its superior uploading tools. Hopefully Oecoway will get more serious about building a better Facebook tool for the iPad, as there surely is a need for such a thing right now, and as acceptable as Social is, there are still big gaps between what people want and what’s available. iLounge Rating: C-.
To make an obvious point up front, the iPhone/iPad universal application iKnow Dogs HD+ ($8, version 2.1) from Alphablind Studio is unquestionably too expensive by App Store standards, but like the broader alphabet and animal ABC Wildlife apps we reviewed earlier this month, it’s a really cool demonstration of how freely available animal reference materials are being evolved to become better than traditional books on Apple’s touchscreen devices.
The major part of iKnow Dogs is a Dog Breed Guide, complete with 184 purebred dogs that can be filtered by popularity, four categories (appearance, AKC group, temperament, and/or country of origin), favorites, or recently viewed, as well as searched by name. Each breed gets a brief description, a list of celebrity owners, a collection of photos—taken from Flickr, generally—plus statistical charts, 0-10 ratings for energy level, required exercise, friendliness towards strangers, ease of training, playfulness, friendliness towards other pets, and challenge of grooming. Links to Wikipedia and the AKC are provided, as well, showing where much of the information included within the app is derived from; users are encouraged to submit their own dog pictures to supplement or perhaps substitute for the ones that are currently within the app, a smart if low-cost way for the developers to grow their database.
Serious breed fans will find the included information to be shallow, while the photos aren’t exactly the best we’ve ever seen, either, but kids and families looking to do comparative dog research will find the ratings and other statistics particularly useful for narrowing down options. There’s also a simple multiple-choice Quiz Game section of the application that lets you test your ability to identify breeds from pictures until you make three mistakes.
iKnow Dogs HD+ isn’t a fantastically original application, but it is assembled competently, providing attractive and easy access to information that people want to see. On the iPad and on iPhone/iPod touch devices, it provides a much nicer interface than just hunting through Wikipedia or AKC pages, lets you focus on pictures if you desire, and filters results efficiently to find the types of dogs that are right for your needs. We wouldn’t pay $8 for this, but then, this is less expensive than traditional dog breed books, and a lot more useful than many of them. Consider it if and when the price drops by half. iLounge Rating: B-.
Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr.‘s A to Z with Moose and Zee ($2, version 1.0) was released earlier this year, but it was brought to our attention recently as a fun iPhone/iPod touch release for kids that supposedly didn’t work on the iPad. Good news: it actually runs just fine, with hand-drawn artwork that scales well to the iPad’s large screen despite having been produced entirely at 480×320 resolution. And it’s a charming little way for kids to learn letters of the alphabet.
A to Z offers a series of 26 cartoony screens devoted to individual letters, almost entirely flat without animation, and the same stated task from screen to screen: find two upper-case and two lower-case versions of a randomly selected letter before moving on to the next one. Yet each screen features the Moose and Zee characters in a different themed environment—at the beach, during fall, and so on—with so much voice and visual guidance that an adult isn’t necessary to supervise a child using the app. If the player pauses for too long, the app uses voice and then on-screen clues to help move the letter finding process forward; successful completion of several letters in a row is rewarded with a friendly intermission.
For the $2 asking price, A to Z with Moose and Zee is a no-brainer for parents whose kids are either fans of these characters or in need of some practice in identifying letters of the alphabet. It’s one of the best examples we’ve yet seen of using voice samples and a considerable quantity of quality still artwork to offset the lack of animation in a kids’ app, going in the opposite direction from the many apps we’ve seen and liked with great animation but relatively few backdrops and little voice work. iLounge Rating: A-.
High-dynamic range (HDR) photography has been of increasing interest over the last several years, as a small group of camera users began to experiment with combinations of multiple photos taken at different exposure levels, resulting in images with greater highlight and shadow detail that under some circumstances appears surrealistic, and in others enables dark or blown-out environments to appear closer to the scenes as people remember them. In light of Apple’s surprise announcement that it was adding HDR features to iOS 4.1—at least, for the iPhone 4—the residual value of standalone applications such as Pro HDR ($2, version 2.1) from eyeApps is a question mark. But since iPhone 3GS users didn’t get HDR support from Apple, Pro HDR and similar apps remain their only solution unless they want to run jailbroken and modified versions of iOS, something we wouldn’t advise; iPhone and iPhone 3G users can’t use this app, and don’t get iOS 4.1 HDR features, either.
Pro HDR has three modes: an automatic mode that snaps two photos and stitches them together, a manual mode that has you choose light and dark zones in your environment before snapping and stitching, and a library mode that grabs images from your photo library that represent light and dark exposures, then merges them. Without going into great detail, the results of Pro HDR’s combinations of images on the iPhone 4 tended to be grainy and less than visually spectacular regardless of the mode you select, with only one advantage: control over brightness, contrast, saturation, warmth, and tint are offered before you save an image, so you can tweak the final product to your heart’s content. On the iPhone 3GS, however, the already grainy images did in fact see better renditions of objects that were either blown out or shadowed, subtle improvements that made so-so pictures a little better, while losing only a little of their 3-Megapixel resolution.
Apple’s built-in feature is faster and better for iPhone 4 users. Within the Camera app, it’s as simple as turning HDR on, hitting the shutter button, and looking a second or two later at the final product—an image that uses conservative but useful exposure differences to add details that weren’t there before without either going overboard or seriously messing up the scene’s colors. The results aren’t as dramatically different as they can be with Pro HDR’s tools, but they’re instantly usable and in many cases noticeably superior to the results the camera could achieve on its own, while preserving a copy of the original image just in case motion or other issues impacted the multi-exposure HDR shot.
For the time being, it suffices to say that iOS 4.1 and iPhone 4 users with integrated HDR support will get very good results without having to buy additional tools; iPhone 3GS users can consider Pro HDR and competitors as alternatives, but shouldn’t expect dramatic transformations of awful pictures into great ones—the images are still going to be grainy, but will have better detail in what would otherwise be really bright and really dark areas of the photos. iLounge Rating: B (iPhone 3GS) / C (iPhone 4).
As another iPhone/iPod touch application that runs on the iPad but doesn’t take advantage of its screen, Melodeo/nuTsie’s Top 100s by Year ($2, version 2.2.3) was recently brought to our attention as a really interesting alternative to traditional Internet Radio. The developer is offering unlimited streaming access to 100 songs per year from 1947 to 2010—tracks that it explains aren’t taken from the Billboard charts or sheer record sales, but rather “songs that have stood the test of time” to become the best tracks of their given years across varied genres. Do the math and you come up with 6,300 songs to hear, which is pretty spectacular for a $2 app, sorted solely by year rather than by genre.
There are, of course, catches. You’re only able to pause, skip, and adjust volume of tracks while they’re playing in shuffled order—like Pandora, Slacker, and other skippable Internet Radio services, you can’t just pick any song you want and hear the whole thing whenever you want, but unlike them, you can skip over and over again without penalty. A preview feature and an iTunes link let you hear samples at any given time, but the primary purpose of the application is to provide year-by-year access to collections of songs that can be picked up and enjoyed together, perhaps as background music for whatever you might be doing. There’s also the question of where these “best track” lists really come from, as recent years have bunches of tracks that seem unlikely to stand any test of time, though they also include a very substantial number of major artists and hits, as well.
If the idea of getting this sort of access to streaming music over cellular or Wi-Fi networks is appealing to you, the $2 asking price of Top 100s by Year is a very reasonable one—the interface isn’t beautiful or super powerful, but low-res album artwork, simple controls, numbered lists, and solid audio quality all do the trick. If you’re willing to suffer through ads related to Microsoft’s Bing, a free version of the application called Top 100s by Year by Bing is also available, but we found Bing’s promotional interruptions to be too annoying; use it as a trial version and spend the couple of bucks for the full application if you like the way the app works. iLounge Ratings: B+ (Paid) / C+ (Bing).