Welcome to the latest edition of Small Apps + Updates, our column designed for quick looks at recent app releases and updates. This week’s Small Apps looks at nine titles ranging from games to communications and reference tools.
Our top pick of the bunch is the latest version of Fring. Read on for all the details.
Normally, we’d consider including Villain LLC’s new first-person shooter Archetype ($3, version 1.0.5) in an iPhone Gems roundup, but after playing it for a bit, we didn’t think there was enough in the gameplay department to warrant even a two-paragraph review… yet. What Villain has come up with is the basis for a really solid shooter, including a silky-smooth 3-D engine with iPhone 4-ready, high-resolution graphics—unfortunately downscaled on the iPad, prior iPhones, and iPod touches—and a streamlined set of dual-joystick controls that work to let you run around mazes in 10-person, two-team deathmatches, fragging as many of your team’s opponents as possible over several minutes. Matchmaking’s simple, the game’s responsive enough, and it’s obvious pretty quickly what you’re supposed to do, but Archetype’s weapons, levels, and characters are all highly generic and similar, leading to samey matches in environments that look nice but too often feel like mazes of boring halls. On the audio side, there’s no music during matches, and in-game sound effects are limited largely to gunfire and explosion effects. Respawning right next to opponents, the absence of armor upgrades, and the tiny but necessary radar could all use tweaks, too. For now, Archetype isn’t worthy of the hype it’s receiving, but with upgrades, it could easily become something truly great. iLounge rating: B-.
Having already covered it twice before, we spotlight Square’s Crystal Defenders for iPad ($8, version 1.0.0) today for only one reason: it’s one of the first games, if not the very first, to receive separate Click Wheel iPod, iPhone/iPod touch, and iPad versions. The iPod version released in 2008 for $5 was a very good 2-D tower defense game, placing you in control of heroic characters tasked with stopping invading hordes from surviving marches through single-screen pathways and maps; its characters were based on Final Fantasy Tactics A2, which made it an instant draw for fans of Square’s strategy game series. Crystal Defenders was followed up in 2009 by an initially under-optimized but subsequently improved $8 iPhone and iPod touch take with more levels, and now there’s this graphically enhanced version for the same price. If you’ve played through the iPhone version, there’s no reason to grab the iPad one, which contains the same W1, W2, and W3 map sets—they’ve just been upgraded in detail to make better use of the 1024×768 screen. The music’s the same, the gameplay’s the same, and the challenge is still high. Is it worth $8? We’d place it on the fine edge of B and B- ratings, going with the higher rating solely because of its solid production values. Skip it for sure if you’ve played it already on an iPod or iPhone, and don’t expect to be visually or sonically blown away unless you like Square’s games, but Square fans who haven’t already experienced it will find this new version to be the best-looking one yet. iLounge rating: B.
Three different Tapbots applications, the cool unit converter Convertbot ($2, version 1.6), the clipboard transfer application Pastebot ($4, version 1.2.1), and the weight tracking tool Weightbot ($2, version 1.6), have all been updated to support iOS 4 immediate resumption, with Convertbot and Weightbot receiving additional iPhone 4-specific improvements for the high-resolution Retina Display. On positive notes, the updates were free across the board, and though the differences in Convertbot and Weightbot aren’t dramatic, they do look sharper on the iPhone 4 screen than before; it’s likely that the visually unchanged Pastebot will be getting a resolution upgrade as well. Less positively, Convertbot had some missing icons when we first ran it on the iPhone 4, a bug, and none of the apps has received iPad support yet, so the iPhone 4 versions still run at low resolution on the iPad. We’re big fans of all of the Tapbots apps and hope that the company comes up with a smart way to support the increasing array of Apple screen sizes and resolutions, soon. No new ratings are being issued for these updates.
Fring (Free, version 126.96.36.199) has been through a lot since we first covered it back in 2008: Fringland Ltd.‘s early, free Voice-over-IP (VoIP) app for iPhone and iPod touch has now become the first free multi-platform video calling app for iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and other devices—plus the first way to make iPhone 4-to-iPhone 4 calls over 3G networks. Though some have groused that Fring’s audio and video quality fall short of Apple’s FaceTime, which is true, they’re missing the point: unlike FaceTime, you can make a very decent Fring video call when you’re not on Wi-Fi, and to non-iPhone 4 devices, at no charge. The audio and video are obviously compressed more than with FaceTime in order to keep things flowing smoothly over 3G, but two people can see and hear each other pretty well when using the app, something that was unthinkable on iPhones only a few months ago. And yes, there are presently limitations: only the front iPhone 4 camera works with Fring, whereas iPhone 3GS’s rear camera is selected for chat, and there’s no orientation sensing.
But as a backup for the many situations in which FaceTime isn’t an option, Fring works well enough to give a shot, and the fact that it’s free means that there’s no reason not to keep it around. It’s worth a brief note that it’s still in no way optimized for the iPad, and has temporarily dropped Skype support to lessen the load on Fring’s servers—some day-to-day changes in its functionality and support have led us not to assign a new rating at this time. Yet we’re very glad that Fringland is trying to push the iPhone’s communications functionality forwards as aggressively as it has here, offering iPhone 3GS users in particular the video calling functionality that Apple restricted to iPhone 4; we’d recommend that you check it out for yourself.
Madfinger’s Samurai: Way of the Warrior (version 1.5) has received a lot of attention over the past week, and it’s also available in an iPad-specific version called Samurai: Way of the Warrior HD ($5, version 1.0.1). As of the date of this review, the iPhone- and iPod touch version of Samurai is temporarily being given away for free, which we’d call a good enough reason for anyone to check it out. But we wouldn’t recommend paying even the HD version’s “special introducing price” of $5 for this simple, repetitive game. Its highlights are calm, zen-like Japanese music and some undeniably impressive, cartoony 3-D artwork that has a cel-shaded look with thick, dark brush strokes; on the iPad, the art’s more detailed and backgrounds have more room to stretch out on the larger display. Unfortunately, the gameplay consists of nothing more than wandering from overhead perspective area to area by touching the screen in a given direction relative to your samurai character, and simple-swiping to slash hordes of enemies to death with your katana; “combos” with multiple simple swipes are added as you continue to play. Though we loved the way the game sounded and liked the way it looked, particularly in the deliberately gratuitous body-splitting slashes and blood splashes, we found the control scheme to be unnecessarily imprecise, and the action samey to a fault. Grab and enjoy the free version while it lasts, but don’t drop $5 unless the controls are radically improved; dual sticks would make it a lot better. iLounge rating: B-.
Having used our fair share of standalone weather stations and clocks with integrated weather features, we were intrigued by Bigsool’s WeatherStation Free (Free, version 1.0) for iPads, which promises to turn an iPad into a clean-looking tool for displaying the current location’s temperature, weather conditions, humidity, barometer reading, dewpoint, and windspeed, plus NOAA forecasted conditions for the evening and next five days. Better yet, the app includes 12 different themes—really just color changes—that make the screen really resemble some of the dedicated weather stations that people buy from stores. That it does all this for free and looks so nice makes it worthy of recommending, though a few issues—a lack of ability to easily change the location, no support for wide orientation, and a repeated need to manually reload the forecast upon restarting the application—all take away a little from what could be a great free app. We wouldn’t be surprised to see all of these problems fixed in a subsequent update. iLounge rating: B.