Welcome to the latest edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at two types of applications: video players capable of expanding the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch past the limited video formats Apple has supported for years, as well as educational applications for kids.
While VLC Media Player falls a little short of our strong recommendation, it’s definitely worthy of attention from iPad users, while the freshly universal-updated Interactive Alphabet – ABC Flash Cards for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad is the best app of the week. Read on for all the details.
Due as much to its price as its power, VLC Media Player (Free, version 1.0) from Applidium/The VideoLAN Team is quite possibly the most broadly appealing of the apps in today’s roundup, the sort of app that every video-loving iPad owner should download right away. Since 2005, Apple has artificially limited the file formats supported by iTunes to prevent its devices from playing back anything save MPEG-4 and H.264 files—formats the company has pushed as space- and battery-efficient, despite the time inefficiencies users have faced in converting every other type of video into these standards. VLC mostly fixes that. Using the Apps > File Sharing feature now found in iTunes, VLC can synchronize lots of non-MP4/H.264 video files directly to the iPad without storing them within the iTunes library, then play them directly on the iPad’s screen without any conversion.
The good news: it does a very good job with files it can play, including a collection of different sample standard-resolution AVI files encoded with varying codecs. Regardless of whether they were 320×240 TV shows or 720×400 movies, VLC opened them, displayed them with proper letterboxing—no zooming—on the large iPad screen, and kept audio and video synchronized at smooth frame rates, non-trivial accomplishments for a free app. Xvid and other widely used encoding methods for Internet videos are supported, though the developers are ambiguous about what exactly the app has and doesn’t have inside.
Bad news: there are all sorts of formats that won’t play at all, or properly, even if they appear to sync within iTunes. Sample MPEG, RealMedia and WMV files would not display on VLC’s bookshelf-style video library window, and higher-resolution (HD) AVIs will likely fail as well; some files may just play audio. There’s also no support for video output to a TV in the current version of the application, and as with too many App Store releases, VLC feels as if it was released a little prematurely, with a few little interface touches that could benefit from post-version 1.0 improvement. Due mostly to the insane number of codecs out there, additional bug and codec testing will be needed before VLC can reach its full potential on the iPad, but for the time being, it opens the device to a considerably larger collection of video content than was possible before, and the lack of a price tag ensures that it will be worth following in the future. iLounge Rating: B.
By comparison, an application from Olimsoft called OPlayer ($3, version 1.16) shows the other direction multi-codec video players will take on Apple’s devices—paid, potentially device-specific, and possibly much more powerful, possibly not. The $3 version of OPlayer is an iPhone- and iPod touch-specific application that runs at low resolution on the iPad, versus a $5 HD version (not tested) that’s iPad-specific. Without going into great detail, it suffices to say that OPlayer offers considerably broader video codec support than VLC, and was capable of displaying every AVI, WMV, RM, and MPEG video we threw at it using the iTunes File Sharing App feature. It offers TV output support, and has a built-in browser that lets you download or stream videos found on the Internet—some great features.
Unfortunately, video playback was almost always choppy in our testing, with videos of every format displaying uneven frame rates—a synchronization problem that VLC completely avoids—and sometimes crashing. In other words, OPlayer lets you watch all types of previously unsupported videos on any of Apple’s iOS devices, but doesn’t do a great job with them. As we’re not thrilled by the separate price tags for different devices, or its actual performance during video playback, we can’t recommend it for the time being. Redesigned as a universal application that plays back all supported videos smoothly, while acquiring other videos directly from the Internet, it could become a very big deal very quickly. iLounge Rating: C-.
Three edutainment applications were also each worth brief mentions in today’s Gems. The first is Pi’ikea St.‘s Interactive Alphabet – ABC Flash Cards ($5/$3, version 1.5), which we previously loved on the iPad; today, the application has gone universal with support for the iPhone and iPod touch, and made a number of graphical and UI improvements that are visible on all three devices. It’s an impressive update.
Upper and lower case letters are now shown together on the screen, alternating between pronouncing the letter and its phonic equivalent when you tap on them; animations for a number of letters have been improved, and a new introduction screen has been added. As excellent as this app was when we looked at it last month, the version 1.5 update has made it even better—worthy of our very rare flat A rating and high recommendation. If you’re a parent of a young child in need of learning or practicing the alphabet, this app should be at the very top of your “must-see” list regardless of the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad you’re using. iLounge Rating: A.
Last week, we looked at iKnow Dogs HD+, an encyclopedia of dog breeds for the iPad with an $8 price tag. Developer Alphablind Studio contacted us quickly thereafter to note a price drop to $5, improving that app’s value, as well as the impending release of iKnow Cats – Cat Breed Guide and Quiz Game ($3, version 1.0) for the iPhone and iPod touch. iKnow Cats takes the exact same interface used on the cheaper iPhone/iPod touch version of the Dogs application, with Retina Display support but without an iPad UI, and populates its entries with 45 breeds of cats. Once again, there’s a simple multiple-choice ID-the-cat-from-photos quiz game built in alongside the searchable breed database.
Each cat gets multiple photographs that can be swiped through, filling the wide screen whenever you turn the iPhone or iPod touch into that orientation, as well as descriptive text and sortable categories of characteristics based upon Wikipedia and FIFe, the Federation International Feline. Unlike iKnow Dogs, which has over time added enough breeds to get close to the American Kennel Club’s list of purebred dogs, iKnow Cats still has quite a few cat breeds left to add before its database is “complete;” we’re confident from seeing Alphablind’s track record with the Dogs application that it will continue to build the library here up over time. A universal update and more content will help this app reach its potential. iLounge Rating: B-.
Today’s last application, Kiboomu’s Old MacDonald Preschool Storybook Piano ($1), appeared briefly in the App Store before being pulled to remedy a text display bug—we’re giving it a brief mention without a rating so that you can know to look out for the fixed version shortly. It’s a second edition of the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star piano application we enjoyed back in July, with a four-verse version of Old MacDonald playing with English lyrics—plus French or Spanish text translations—alongside scrolling musical piano notes or scenes from the Old MacDonald nursery rhyme. We’ll have more to say on this when it’s back in the App Store, but fans of the original will definitely like it. iLounge Rating: NR.