Some iPad Apps

ArtStudio

If you want to draw on the iPad it’s hard to miss Brushes ($9.99) or Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($7.99), but it’s rather easy to overlook ArtStudio ($0.99). I’m quoting prices from memory (and they’re liable to change as well) so don’t shoot me if I’m not exactly right.

I think Sketchbook Pro has a better “feel” than ArtStudio (I can’t comment on Brushes because I paid $4.99 for the iPhone app and refuse to give the developer any more money until I see significant UI improvements) but ArtStudio wins big on user interface. First off, Sketchbook reduces its UI to a single dot which lets you tweak your current brush, and access the rest of the UI. ArtStudio puts hidden undo and redo in corners of the screen, and has a better located “show me the UI” button. As a result, ArtStudio is my go-to app for doodling, while Sketchbook Pro looks pretty and sits in the corner.

ArtStudio does have some UI blemishes — its more advanced function buttons are just ugly — but it gives quicker access to common functions (complete with press and hold to grab colors from your image). I love it.

If I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick ArtStudio over Sketchbook Pro right now — and at one dollar it’s an absolute steal right now, although I know the latter is very popular among digital artists, and I expect the program to improve over time.

Freeform

The other day I needed a drawing program badly, and the first one that occurred to me was Omnigraffle — for which I have a license somewhere. Then I remembered that Omni is porting everything to the iPad and searched for it. $49.99. Um, OK. Look, I love you guys but that’s absurd. (And the reviews are pretty damning too.)

Eventually I found Freeform ($2.99 I think) which is a really good UI looking for a bit more functionality. All this program needs is some (better? any?) way to delete stuff, text blocks, rotate objects, snap to grid, precise beziers, gradient fill, arrows, and slightly better palette management (it’s quite good already) and it would be pretty much perfect.

Kindle

Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad is free. So you can have your cake and eat it. Enough said. It’s missing some of iBooks’s sizzle (e.g. page-turn animations) and cleverness (e.g. adjustable brightness) but beats it on practical considerations (e.g. you can view books as white on black, which is handy if you’re reading in bed next to a sleeping spouse). It’s early days yet, but the iPad is already a better Kindle than the Kindle.

Numbers

Alone among the Apple offerings on the iPad, Numbers is kind of broken. Some of its quirks are simply infuriating. E.g. stretching a selection doesn’t fill the way it does in the desktop version (e.g. if you want to fill-right or fill-down with a formula), and exactly how scrolling works in grids has me mystified. Insofar as it works, it works quite well, but compared to Pages and Keynote it’s a very unpolished.

Pages

My big gripe with Pages is that you can’t modify styles, which is very annoying when you bring in a document and discover some style has been reassigned to an inappropriate font. There’s simply no way to say “make bullet paragraphs Times please”. Aside from that, it’s very well done. Unfortunately, I’m not running iWork 09 on my Macs yet, making it a bit of a pain for interoperability.

Speaking of which: the system for moving files to and from the iPad is horrible (I’m hardly the first to opine thus) and needs to be fixed. Also, when will I be able to drag a PDF onto my iPad (or download one) and read it in iBooks or some other built-in app? (Heck, Safari is pretty decent, but won’t explicitly download files.)

Which leads to:

GoodReader

I was pretty desperate to have a PDF viewer on the iPad and willing to pay anything up to… $0.99 as it happened. GoodReader is a solid app with a cluttered UI and a ridiculous number of features. You can send files to it wirelessly (it pretends to be a server) or use its built-in browser to navigate to pages containing PDFs and download them. (Again, can we please have a file system of some kind? Thanks.) The PDF viewing component is pretty decent, albeit cluttered and perversely pages “down” and “up” rather than “left” and “right” which is not only inconsistent with iBooks (with which the developer may not, at the time, have been familiar) but pretty annoying in general (I generally don’t have any fingers near the center-bottom of the screen when reading).

Note: I just updated my apps and the developer of Goodreader has acknowledged the page-turning issue and promised a fix imminently.

So, a pretty darn nice app (functionally speaking) wrapped in a slipshod UI.

Cat in the Hat & Seuss ABC

Aside from draining my iPad’s battery faster than any other app (including GTA: Chinatown Wars and Pocket Legends) I’ve tried, these are really very nicely done. You can have the books read themselves, read on demand, or read them yourself. If you touch objects the word “puffs” out of them and is spoken. If you touch the text it gets read aloud. And the drawings look incredibly sharp. Very, very nice stuff.

Doodle Buddy

I got this $0.99 (or was it $1.99) drawing app with stamps and sound effects for my twins, and they love it (a little too much). It’s essentially Kid Pix for the iPad (only better and insanely cheap).

JamPad

There are tons of apps like this out there, but this one was free with a $0.99 internal upgrade (darn I got suckered!). It’s a simple app that gives you a piano keyboard (good multitouch support, but no way to stop the keyboard from scrolling around as you play and no way to hit a note hard or soft), and the ability to play percussion and guitar backing tracks, or hit electric guitar chords. For a $0.99 it’s a fine musical “doodling” tool (well, it is for me — my father would probably wince were he alive to hear it).

Labyrinth Lite

I never bought the full version on the iPhone, although I liked the lite version well enough. The iPad version is prettier (beyond the extra screen real estate) and has almost too many gimmicks, but none of the free content is terribly compelling, nor does it seem to promise enough to hook me into paying. Lovely piece of software though.

Touchpad

Touchpad uses VNC to let your iPhone (and now iPad) act as a remote mouse/keyboard for any Mac running 10.6 (not sure if it works for 10.5, and not really bothered to find out given the immense upgrade cost). We’ve been using it on our iPads to control the Mac that drives the HD TV in our bedroom, and this just makes it more useful (especially since, on the iPhone, it’s a bit of a battery drain).

Pocket Legends

This MORPG  (it’s not massive, at least not yet, so just one M) deserves a review of its own. In almost every sense except perhaps the most important one this is a truly brilliant piece of work. The big problem is gameplay, which is 75% of the way there, but has no flaws that can’t fairly easily be addressed. A slightly lesser problem is a business model that appears to preclude trading items with friends (or anyone else).

Here are the salient features from my point of view:

  • It’s essentially instanced. Your character lives on a server, but games are essentially group-level or solo. So it’s more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. The one difference is you can go to “town” and experience the lag of lots of players all in one place spamming emotes.
  • The game architecture and base assumptions mean that you can play it as a single-player game, or just with friends, or you can just join random games and silently cooperate with strangers (you can chat in game but no-one seems to bother).
  • The business model is essentially Zynga but — I think — better. Instead of spending money on useless doohickeys or simply to gain a leg up on people who don’t waste money, you basically spend money to gain access to more content. This means you pay for what you do, not for how long you keep an account. (World of Warcraft is great value for people playing it 4h/day, but kind of a ripoff for casual players who only log on now and then. Why?) You can also spend real money to buy game money or special gear, but neither seems necessary. I approve.
  • The game itself is very simple. You touch the ground to move. You touch bad guys to target them. You attack enemies by touching an attack button or firing off an expensive special ability. There are three character options: archer (a bird thing who uses bows), mage (human girl), and warrior (a bear thing). The graphics are low poly but stylish, so if you like World of Warcraft’s aesthetic, you’ll probably like Legends. If not, not.
  • The content is also very simple. So far all I’ve seen have been simple mazes with monsters and treasure chests scattered around them. The monsters wander back and forth. The only real challenge in the game is pulling (getting single or small groups of monsters to attack you without drawing any of their friends to help), and it’s not much of a challenge.
  • It works pretty well, although lag can be terrible and sometimes things mysteriously won’t work (e.g. you can’t target a monster, or your wife’s mage’s spells don’t show up on your screen). It also took us quite a while to figure out how to loot chests (you point yourself near them facing towards them and attack).
  • You can’t trade items — which is particularly infuriating if the loot system allocates you a piece of loot your companion can use and you can’t.
  • There’s no sense of a “world”. Dungeons are small, flat mazes. You start at one end, go to the other, kill everything, and you’re done. This opens up the next dungeon. You don’t travel overland (except inside a “dungeon”). There’s no world map.

Anyway, it’s free and the stuff in-game is cheap (and we haven’t paid for anything yet). It’s mildly diverting, and it gives the iPad a coop game that doesn’t suck — which is no bad thing. I think I’ll try out Dungeon Hunter before I spend any money on Legends, though.

Tiny Freecell (iPhone)

The $0.99 iPhone solitaire game implements Freecell and Eight Off very nicely, and it works just dandy on my iPad (and looks great pixel-doubled). It hasn’t been updated in years, so I’m not holding my breath for a native iPad version.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

It hasn’t been updated to support the iPad yet, but the “glass joystick” works better on the iPad than the iPhone (more screen real estate, I think). Even so, I think this app really needs a more “native” interface.

  • iPad envy. Sam has an insatiable reading habit. He’s read 50-75% or my Jack Vance and age-appropriate Ursula LeGuin and Kurt Vonnegut, for instance.

    So we were considering a family Kindle for Xmas, but I’m thinking an iPad would make all of us much happier.

    We had Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham (for the Sam reference) and our kids loved that game to death. I can see how the iPad version would knock it out of the park.

    Sounds like it’s getting closer to being the primer from Diamond Age.

  • Mark

    Kindle app does have a brightness control — tap the type size icon.

    And why not give the Brushes developer another five bucks? You’d spend that much on a physical sketchbook. Or coffee and a donut.

  • It’s not another $5, it’s another $10 — and I was never happy with the original app. If I were, I’d happily pay him another $10. Brushes is amazingly laborious to use (I marvel at the fellow who does the New Yorker covers). E.g. changing the thickness of a brush involves between three or four steps (depending on whether the UI is visible), and from what I’ve seen things aren’t markedly improved with the iPad version. ArtStudio (or Sketchbook Pro) is a joy in comparison.

    Thanks for the hint on the Kindle app. Not only does it have brightness, but I can switch to white on black (much less annoying for my wife who might be trying to sleep). In fact, I’d say the Kindle app draws about even with iBooks… behind on glitz but ahead on practical considerations. The Kindle app’s page turning is a bit less twitchy, too.

  • Sean Case

    Sketchbook has undo/redo corners, but I now see they are different corners from the ones in ArtStudio. That’s got to be a pain.

    I’m basing this on the iPhone versions of course. I can’t even pre-order an iPad for a couple of weeks yet.

  • I’m going to hazard that Sketchbook has undo corners on the iPad and I just haven’t found them — which is one for ArtStudio (and I actually read Sketchbook’s instructions).

    Even so, ArtStudio’s UI is way ahead of Sketchbook’s in many, many ways. (E.g. unlimited undo vs. 2 levels.) Still, this stuff is so cheap (for now) … I’m happy I bought both.