Welcome to our latest kids-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Though we also take a very brief look at the long-awaited TiVo application for iPads, the focus of today’s Gems is a look at five new digital book applications from three companies, each of which has taken a different approach to evolving the classic children’s storybook. Four of the books are ready for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad devices, while one is iPad-only.
Our top pick in the bunch is Jack and Joe, but Ruckus Media’s celebrity-studded renditions of three classic stories will appeal to quite a few parents, and Tron fans might want to take a peek at Disney’s expensive Tron: Legacy story app. Breaking with tradition, we’ve had to leave some of the apps unrated this week for various reasons explained below. Read on for all the details.
We had no idea what to expect when we loaded up Jack and Joe ($1, version 1.2) from the obviously misnamed Stupid Art Company, a two-brother writing, illustration, and programming team that has more combined talent than most of the larger children’s book developers in the App Store. What initially caught our attention was the developers’ reference to the puppy Jack, who happens to be a Siberian Husky—one of our favorite dog breeds. But universal iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad compatibility, combined with the reasonable introductory price, also made the 27-page-long book sound potentially very worthwhile.
Jack and his blond-haired kid friend Joe are beautifully drawn in a series of “friends having fun playing together” scenes that are inspired by both European cartoons and Japanese manga. The audio portion is equally compelling: it’s narrated with a friendly, enthusiastic voice that reads the story and provides directions to keep kids moving along, alongside sound effects that fit each of the pages. There are opportunities to pet Jack, tap the screen to find him, and color on the screen, amongst a number of other one-off touching and swiping activities that can consume between five and twenty minutes, depending on who’s doing the reading. Most of the scenes are both fun and funny, tying together a variety of disparate themes that kids will enjoy: Jack and Joe as dancers, robots, and dogs, the latter with Joe in a dog costume ordered off the Internet. By the end of the story, the developer hints at another Jack and Joe adventure, and we actually look forward to seeing it.
The app’s only issues are small rough edges that could very easily be polished off in an update. One of the early activities—shaking the iPhone or the iPad repeatedly to bring Jack and Joe out of a tree—might concern parents with slippery-handed kids, and there are little elements, such as the Stupid Art Company name and occasional spelling or capitalization mistakes, that could stand to be cleaned up a little in a children’s edutainment app. A more cohesive structure for the story would make the experience even better. But otherwise, Jack and Joe is a really cute little book that has plenty of art, audio, and fun for the price; it’s certainly worthy of our high recommendation, your attention, and further editions. iLounge Rating: A-.
By contrast with the original storyline and art in Jack and Joe, Ruckus Media Group’s series of three new books all come from classic childrens’ stories. As of today, only the first of the books—Three Little Pigs, told by Holly Hunter ($2)—is available in the App Store, but Paul Bunyan, told by Jonathan Winters ($2) will debut on January 26, and Thumbelina, told by Kelly McGillis ($2) arrives on February 14. All come from the Rabbit Ears Entertainment series of books, but have decidedly different visual styles and audio thanks to individual illustrators and narrators.
All three of the applications present you with three initial buttons: “Watch the Video,” “Read the Book,” or “Read and Record.” Pressing the “Watch the Video” button loads a custom video player with a 20-plus-minute full-screen movie version of the story, complete with music, a full reading of the story by the aforementioned celebrity, and Ken Burns-style panning through illustrations—in this mode, text doesn’t appear on the screen. Hitting “Read the Book” presents a very different experience, pairing static illustrations with story text in boxes that float above or alongside the illustrations, without audio accompaniment of any type. This version lets parents and kids move through the story at their own pace, with between 48 and 73 pages depending on the app. Finally, “Read and Record” lets a parent record page-by-page readings of the text and play them back in sequence as the pages are turned.
Though there are lots of versions of these stories already in the App Store, Ruckus Media deserves serious praise for offering such worthwhile and different storytelling options within each of these affordable apps. Winters’ trademark friendly but gruff voice and McGillis’s gentle read provide really appropriate accompaniments to the Paul Bunyan and Thumbelina stories, which are respectively illustrated with fun cartoony and more traditional thin-pencil European-style artwork. On the other hand, The Three Little Pigs has a fairly serious bug—seemingly a missing video file—that prevents its video portion from displaying at all, so all that’s left to be seen there is the illustrated storybook portion of the app, which features the roughest artwork in the group. For the time being, we’re going to hold off on rating The Three Little Pigs until the necessary bug fix hits the App Store, but we really liked the quality of the other two apps for their $2 asking prices, and we hope to see Ruckus Media offer even more of these books in the near future. It’s unfortunate that such a big bug had to impact the first app’s release. iLounge Ratings (Paul Bunyan/Thumbelina): B+.
The single biggest challenge that Disney Publishing Worldwide’s iPad-only storybook Tron: Legacy The Complete Story ($9, version 1.0) has is its high price tag: you’ll be able to rent the actual movie two or more times for what it’s asking here. But if you can get past the expense—or Disney lowers it to match more common App Store pricing for software of this type—you might find this app somewhat compelling on the merits of what’s included.
Most of Tron: Legacy The Complete Story is a 75-page illustrated book, each page showing an image representing a scene from last year’s sequel to the classic sci-fi film Tron, plus a text box with relatively tiny print to tell the story from the film. While not “complete” in the sense that it doesn’t actually describe every event in the story, entirely omitting for example Sam Flynn’s prank on Encom, the book moves through most of the key sequences, offering a “photo” button that switches between the illustration and a still photo frame from the movie. A track from Daft Punk’s soundtrack from the film loops as you read the book at your own pace, and a Multimedia section offers access to additional content: the Derezzed song from the soundtrack, a Slideshow of the previously-mentioned still photos, and a five-minute Tron: Legacy Motion Comic, offering yet another illustrated take on the movie’s content—this one animated, but chunked into six “episodes,” of which only episode one is available as of today. The others are promised in a subsequent free update.
There are a few major issues with Tron: Legacy The Complete Story, which like Disney’s earlier Tron game app feels more like a disjointed collection of parts than a well-executed whole. The most positive way of looking at the package is as an evolution of the paperback movie-themed books that have come out for decades, using the iPad’s screen to provide more compelling illustrations that are closer to graphic novel quality, and a written story that fits—albeit in tiny type—on the display at the same time as the art, something that couldn’t be done on the iPhone or iPod touch. But there’s a certain flatness to the illustrations that contrasts sharply with the film’s energetic visuals.
The app’s multimedia section, particularly the Motion Comic, suggests that if the special effects-laden movie’s content had to be transformed into something else, an animated comic complete with voice work from the original actors would have been a better idea than a text-laden collection of still images. Though the Motion Comic is only brief, it brings the story to life in a way that the rest of the app doesn’t. Looping one song over and over throughout the book portion of the app wasn’t a great idea, either, and the inclusion of the second track Derezzed merely as something to hear in the multimedia menu is pretty weird, too. For the time being, the price and seemingly incomplete content drop this app into our C rating category, but with post-release tweaks, Tron: Legacy The Complete Story might be worth grabbing ahead of the full film’s DVD and Blu-Ray release. iLounge Rating: C.
Last up this week is an abbreviated look at TiVo Inc.‘s long-awaited official TiVo (Free) application, which promises TiVo users access to a full-screen program guide that includes direct-from-iPad scheduling features. As owners of TiVo Series 2 and Series 3/HD boxes, we were genuinely excited when this application was announced, and looked forward to both testing it and using it on a regular basis. But as with virtually everything TiVo has done over the past several years, the app serves as yet another reminder of why this company has never gone as mainstream as it could have: within minutes after loading, the app will tell most users that it doesn’t work with their TiVo hardware, and then attempt to upsell them a new TiVo Premiere box instead.
The TiVo app begins by searching your wireless network for a TiVo Premiere box—the version released less than a year ago, to very mixed reviews—and then offers “Sign In” and “Scan Again” features if a Premiere box isn’t found. Users without Premiere units may initially try to Sign In to TiVo’s website, as we did, but will get no satisfaction in doing so; the app doesn’t even attempt to reach out to the web-based programming guide that the company’s earlier devices have supported for years. Instead, TiVo tells users to “checkout the special TiVo upgrade offer” at a web address, offering a miserly $30 discount off of a $300 hardware purchase, alongside a seemingly mandatory $200 upcharge just to continue receiving programming guide service for the new device. Anyone downloading a free iPad app to enjoy more convenient use of a TiVo will be stunned by how much cash the company is trying to extract for added functionality they probably couldn’t care less about—save perhaps to schedule recordings from the convenience of the app rather than the TiVo itself, or the web.
In the event that TiVo does the right thing and updates this app to provide backwards compatibility with the millions of pre-Premiere devices it has sold, we’ll revisit this app and provide a rating. For now, all the TiVo app’s lock out and upsell approach is insulting, highlighting TiVo’s mediocre track record in supporting Apple products—and its own—with software improvements that other companies have handled faster and better. iLounge Rating: N/R.