Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

iBird for the iPad

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ipb14 I have been an iBird user since all they had out was the Backyard version for the iPhone/iPod Touch, so, of course I was interested to see what they could do with the program on the larger format and higher processing power of the iPad. IBird Yard for iPad was ready on launch day and demonstrates many of the strengths of the new device, as well as many of the very real differences between the two platforms.

I should say, right up front here, that iBird for the iPad is the Backyard version. It only covers 148 of the most common species of North American Birds. I am sure there will be Plus or Pro versions with the complete species list down the road. [According to the publisher, a Yard Plus version has already been submitted to the app store, which will include 82 more species. This will be a free upgrade for current users of iBird Yard for the iPad.]

The feature set of iBird for iPad is all but identical to the iPhone versions, but the layout, the look and feel, and especially the program navigation are all tailored to the new platform. Like most programs I have tied on the iPad, iBird has very distinct portrait and landscape modes, Portrait mode presents the information in slightly larger format…text is bigger, images are bigger, etc., and relies on pop-overs accessed via buttons to display the index of species, while landscape uses the extra width of the screen to display more information, and especially, more options simultaneously. Compare the two screen shots below. In landscape mode you can view the species index/search panel (in numerous different formats) at the same time. This makes switching species especially fast and easy, and gives you instant access to species search within the index. The Gallery alternative index view provides what amounts to an index for the highly visual. And because of the size of the iPad screen, the illustrations in the Gallery index are large enough to make finding the right bird as easy as flicking through the index until you see something that look right. While that might not sound like much, it gives the non-linear, non-text based folks among us a way of finding the right bird that is roughly equivalent to flipping through the field guide, but a lot more efficient, elegant, and practical.

The species index is a work of programming art. It provides 4 ways to view the index: Compact (name only), Icon (illustrated), Album (like icon but with larger images of the bird, and the above mentioned Gallery view. It also provides 4 ways to sort the index: first name, last name, family and taxonomic, and 3 ways to search for specific species within the index: common name, Latin name, and band code (a system of abbreviations used by bird banders).

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Lets take one more look at the Overview page to demonstrate just how much information is presented in this view. Expand the annotated screen shot to full size by clicking for an easy view.

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The illustrations, as mentioned, expand to full page size by touching the Portrait control. This opens a new view with the illustration full sized and the index next to it (screen shot 1 below). Or you can just touch the illustration in the Overview view and it will open as a separate view (screen shot 2).

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And of course that is just the beginning. The Identify page presents information on Body shape, size, color, and patterns, the same for the Head, a detailed description of the flight characteristics, and a panel of Interesting Facts.

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The Photos page presents 1 to 5 images contained within the program’s data base as iPhone sized shots, and a panel which automatically searches flickr for images of the species. It can pull down hundreds of images, thousands of some species. There are, for instance, 44 panels of images of Baltimore Oriole. Touching any image in the flickr panel opens the m.flickr.com page for that image. Unfortunately that is as far as you can go. It would probably be too much to ask to be able to view the flickr images at larger sized too. :(  🙂

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While we are on internet resources, there is also a page to display the Birdipedia info on the species, which includes current conservation status (actually the Wiki page for the bird reformatted).

Where the iPad interface really shines though, is in the Search features.

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I have never really used the search feature on the iPhone version much. That perhaps says more about me than the tool itself. For me there are just too many steps required to specify search criteria to make the process attractive or fluid.  I am sure there are folks who think it is the best feature of iBird on the iPhone, and use it to great effect. I admit that I am not one of them.

However, on the iPad version, Search suddenly becomes attractive to me. The search view uses pop-overs and multiple panels to good effect, and you are presented with an instantaneous and continuous view of matches that updates as you specify new criteria. Want to know what you have already set. There is a little red dot that appears on the icon for every criteria set you have already used, and, for details, you can simply touch the History button and a pop-over appears with your criteria so far. The criteria lists, by the way, are already pre-qualified (this is such a unique feature that it is patented!). Selections that would result in 0 matches are grayed out. Each criteria that would yield matches displays the number of matches under its icon, so you have some idea what you are selecting. And, the color criteria allow both And and Or searches…both colors or one or the other of the colors you choose. And all of it is very graphical. Song and flight patterns have drawings to illustrate the patterns. Bill lengths have sample birds. Colors are bright swatches. All together it makes the search process, to me at least, much more intuitive and fluid: and powerful.

And, in addition to the more elegant search, there is a completely new feature, not included in the iPhone version. Compare allows you to display up to four species, along with an illustrated list of the search attributes that apply to each species. This is an amazing learning tool…and potentially much more useful when the full Plus or Pro versions appear with more species. Comparing species, whether close in appearance or widely separated, will build a sense of what distinguishes one bird from another…of exactly what to look for in the field when you are working without your iBird handy. Using it as a study aid will, in my opinion, build your field skills faster than any method short of observing the living birds…and even with the living birds in front of you, you rarely get a chance to do such comparison, since the species only very rarely cooperate by sitting in the same binocular field. In my opinion, the Compare feature of iBird Backyard makes it a must have for any iPad owning birder attempting to improve his or her id skills.

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And then, of course, there are the Audio features: a complete set of sound recordings for the species included.

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Special note should be made of the Help system, which amounts to one of the most complete instruction manual/tutorials I have yet seen for an application, let alone one on the iPad. It is worth paging through. In fact I would say that if you do not use the Help screens, you will, without doubt, miss some of the most powerful features of iBird for iPad.

I missed two. Totally. Until they were pointed out to me. Both the Notes and Favorite features, long available in the iPhone version, have been considerably augmented in the iPad version. Notes can now be synced with iTunes, edited on your computer, and synced back to the iPad. The limitation I still see in Notes is that it appears you can only have one note per species at a time. You could, of course, after syncing with iTunes, sore the existing note in a unique spot (a new folder) and rename it,  create a new one, etc…which you could then save somewhere else (another folder) on sync. That way you could have multiple note sets. It is also possible to insert multiple date stamps in the note to separate entries in one longer note.

In addition, the Favorites feature now becomes really useful for listers, as the iPad version allows you keep multiple lists of Favorites. You can even give each Favorite list a unique name. This opens the possibility of a Life List, State lists, trip lists, etc. etc. all kept within the app, and all available for syncing through iTunes to your computer. This is a considerable advance!

If you have studied the screen shots above, you might have noticed that there are two ways to navigate between the various views and functions. There is a sliding menu along the bottom of the screen with buttons, like an animated task bar on a computer, or you can turn that off and use the pop-over menu under the open book icon on the bottom left of the screen, as shown in the screen shot below.

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So, bottom line. iBird Backyard for the iPad is everything iBird for iPhone is…and more. It uses the features of the new platform to present a vast amount of information about birds and birding in a totally unique way. The iPhone version is also unique, but the differences are as subtle as differences between the two devices. The iPhone version, with most of the same features and information, on a device that fits in your pocket, is what I think of as the perfect digital, multi-media field guide: the first really effective, complete, and superior alternative to the printed guide. In fact, iBird on the iPhone is the first field guide I have actually carried in the field in years.

iBird on the iPad, however, is more like an encyclopedia and bird study course rolled into one. Though the iPad can be carried in the field (it is not much more bulky than the National Geographic printed guide, and certainly less bulky than the full Sibely), personally, I would be unlikely to do so. I can tuck my iPhone in my pocket, more or less out of harms way, but, while I am sure gorilla glass is wonderful stuff, I would be paying way too much attention to keeping my $500 iPad safe to really enjoy using it in the field. Again, just me. Your take may be totally different. And, of course, this is not so much a comment on iBird as it is on the iPad itself.

However, as a home reference and learning aid, with occasional field functionality (which is, actually, exactly what I consider both the National Geographic and Sibely printed field guides), iBird for iPad is totally unlike anything we could have even imagined a few years ago. Sure, we had multi-media birding programs on DVD and multi-media birding sites on the web. But as Steve Jobs says, the iPad is magic. There is something about interacting with the information using your fingers that elevates the experience to a whole new level of satisfaction, of ease, and of fascination. Someone said iBird for the iPhone represented the first true digital book…but he had not seen iBird for the iPad. I have seen the future of information publishing. It is iBird on the iPad. Oh there are other great examples, and more coming, but someday our children will look back to 2009/10 as the year publishing went digital. They will remember the iPad as the first device to really take it there…and they just may remember iBird for the IPad as the first truly convincing demonstration of the potential. Certainly they will if they are themselves birders…or the children of birders. I have seen the future. It is here in the iPad, and it is here in iBird Backyard…and it is going to be good.

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Written by singraham

June 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

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