Welcome to the retooled version of iLounge’s mini-app roundup column “Weird and Small Apps,” which we’ve titled Small Apps + Updates. In this recurring column, we’ll take brief looks at noteworthy small apps and games, as well as offering quick second takes on updated versions of titles we’ve previously covered.
The top picks in this roundup are Solar Walk and Wheels on the Bus HD. Read on for all the details.
The value of iPhone OS camera applications is an ongoing topic of discussion between iLounge’s editors, all of whom love photography and enjoy playing with new cameras and photo editing tools. One of the most memorable discussions dealt with the original version of Nevercenter’s CameraBag, an iPhone tool that filtered the grainy, low-resolution images from early iPhone and iPhone 3G cameras, transforming them into faux Polaroids, as well as high- and low-contrast images similar to ones from other classic cameras. Now there’s a separate version for the iPad called CameraBag for iPad ($3, version 1.9.1), and our internal discussion has turned into a debate: is an app like this really necessary, particularly as a more expensive standalone version rather than as a universal update to the highly similar iPhone and iPod touch original?
The critical difference between the iPad and the iPhone is that iPad users don’t have a camera—grainy or otherwise—built into that device, so the only photos they’re dealing with are ones taken by separate cameras, most often point-and-shoots with far better capabilities than the iPhone. So whereas the idea of devolving a cell phone-quality image into a 1974 or silver-tinged picture makes sense, doing so with a higher-quality image is arguably less valuable, and could easily be just one feature in a more capable iPad photo editing application. In fact, filters like these are only a small part of Photogene, which offers considerable additional editing power at a similar price.
CameraBag is much, much simpler. You load it, choose an effect, a frame, and an aspect ratio, and hit a “vary” button to try different levels of strength for the filter. You can save and share filtered images. That’s it. The interface is easy to understand, but the app’s functionality is so limited that it shouldn’t be difficult. Are the results nice? They’re as good as your original pictures, stripped of some or all of their additional color, then downsampled as necessary for saving. If that appeals to you, give this app a shot, but from our perspective, this app makes a lot more sense on the iPhone at a lower price. A universal app for all of Apple’s iPhone OS devices would have been a better idea. iLounge Rating: B-.
Though we were tempted to include Little While Bear Studios’ iPad puzzle game Compression HD (Free, version 1.0) in this week’s gaming edition of Gems, it turns out to be so simple that it felt better suited to this brief roundup. You’re presented with a well full of filled and semi-filled colored blocks, and have to eliminate all of the semi-filled blocks to move on to the next level. Blocks drop from the top of the screen and need to be matched—three at a minimum, naturally—in order to clear the well; the longer you take, the more the walls and floor of the well “compress” your play area. If you don’t eliminate all the semi-filled blocks before running out of space, the game ends. With a relatively low excitement level apart from the semi-energetic song that plays through the title screens and game, Compression HD is only worth checking out on the iPad because it’s free, but it has unusually excellent introductory screens, and the in-game artwork is also nicely detailed. Hopefully the developer will work on this one a bit more and expand the promising gameplay; an iPhone and iPod touch version (not reviewed) is also available, apparently with additional features. iLounge Rating: B-.
If ever there was a game suited for our old “weird and small apps” column—and a $1 price tag—Venan Entertainment’s iPhone/iPod touch release Ninjatown: Trees of Doom! ($2/$1, version 1.0) would be it. Featuring unquestionably cute Shawnimals characters, most notably the Wee Ninja you control, this microgame has you climb, dodge, and jump back and forth between two walls on a mission to see how far up you can get before falling. All you need to do is hold your finger on the screen to move upwards, tap left or right to move from wall to wall, and swipe downwards to aim your mega-jump on the occasion when you grab a tree branch that can be used to slingshot you upwards. With randomized level designs and a lighthearted touch—Wee Ninja doesn’t fall, screaming, when he touches one of the deadly purple walls, red demons, or slippery tree surfaces—the game is fun to pick up once in a while, and appropriate for virtually all ages. A deeper game with the same characters would be welcome. iLounge Rating: B.
The Elements demonstrated the iPad’s amazing potential as an earth science educational tool, and now Vito Technology’s Solar Walk – 3D Solar System Model ($3) has taken the next giant leap as a fully 3-D application for exploring our solar system. Solar Walk was previously released as an iPod touch and iPhone application, and the May release of version 1.2 added iPad support in universal form—the preferred way of offering applications like this one.
Whether you’re running it on a 9.7” display or a 3.5” one, Solar Walk operates in generally the same way: you’re given a completely 3-D map of the solar system that shows the actual positions, revolutions, and rotations of planets and moons relative to the sun in real time, plus a clock that can be advanced or regressed to change their alignments—and therefore the sun/shadow portions of each planet—as you prefer. Tapping on any planet or moon leads to a dramatic zoom-in, filling most of the screen with the globe at its highest level of texture detail; an “i” informational button shifts the planet to one side of the screen, and adds a window with narrative historical details and data. Planets look impressively smooth and detailed enough to make good use of the iPad, sometimes with multiple texture layers, though they inspire a desire to dive deeper through their cloud cover. Spacey new age music plays in the background as you explore the solar system, shifting from moon to moon with intuitive swipe, pinch, and tap gestures.
While navigation is extremely easy to figure out, Solar Walk’s educational text could definitely use additional work. As with the graphics, which are just impressive enough to leave you wanting more, little typos and the overall quality of the information contribute to a sense that this app could go from goodness to greatness with just a little extra effort. What’s here is fine, as you can learn generalities about each planet and how it was named, see a collection of facts and figures, look at a cross-section of its core, and read about related NASA missions, but more information and an Elements-like semi-casual tone would improve Solar Walk’s appeal; similarly, knowing a planet’s gravity is nice, and understanding what it is relative to the Earth’s is better, but being able to actually use it for something practical would be better. That said, even with Solar Walk’s limitations, the app still feels like a revelation of sorts when used on the iPad after looking at a plain text book, particularly for the price. Better space educational apps may well follow for the iPad over the next year or two, but this is a very good start to the genre for the time being. iLounge Rating: B+.
Tweetie was the best iPhone Twitter client before it was acquired and renamed by Twitter; now Tweetie’s developer Loren Brichter and Borange have a solution for fans of text messaging who want to avoid recurring monthly SMS and MMS charges. Textie Messaging (Free, version 1.0.3) is an almost complete replacement for the iPhone’s Messages application—and looks nearly identical, save for an integrated settings screen—with the ability to process outgoing and incoming text and picture messages. Install Textie, give it your e-mail address and phone number, and when people with Textie use it to send messages to your number, you’ll receive them with no charge, and vice-versa, complete with push notifications of their arrival. In other words, it’s just like using any instant messaging application with support for image sharing, but it’s simplified to look and work just like Apple’s Messaging—and does work for sending SMS/MMS messages from the iPad or iPod touch, which Messaging does not.
The hitch: if the other person’s not using Textie, messages they send to your phone’s number, or from the Textie app, will behave just like SMS messages, complete with the standard charge. There’s also no way to know whether the other person is or isn’t using Textie, other than to ask them. For this reason, the developers note that “[t]his app is not intended to completely replace your SMS plan, but it may significantly reduce your bill,” which is a fair enough caveat—particularly for a free program—but it does raise the question of whether you really want to keep yet another instant messenger on your device when e-mail and more widely used services such as AIM do the trick. This is a good app for the time being, but we’re guessing and hoping that Apple will have something better up its sleeve with the release of iPhone OS 4.0 this summer. iLounge Rating: B.
Last February, we reviewed and loved the first educational app from Duck Duck Moose, Wheels on the Bus—a storybook-styled singalong title that led to three compelling follow-ups that we’ve also enjoyed. This week, Duck Duck Moose released the iPad-only version Wheels on the Bus HD ($2, version 1.0), which doubles the price, increases the resolution of the artwork to fill the iPad’s 1024×768 display, and makes modest improvements to the audio.
As long-time fans of the original title, which we’ve been using with kids on our iPads for the past month and a half, our feeling is that this HD version is a relatively minor upgrade—the artwork is surely higher in actual resolution than the upscaled iPhone original, but the extra detail barely shines through in flat-shaded imagery like this. The fact that the iPad app isn’t backwards compatible with the iPhone makes the original an easier purchase; that one works on both devices and looks good enough for kids. Go for this version if you’re only an iPad user and don’t expect to ever have a need for iPhone or iPod touch compatibility—in any case, both versions are amongst the very best kids’ applications available in the App Store today. iLounge Rating: B+.