Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Archos Internet Tablet 101: very interesting…

with 22 comments

[I am adding a note here to clarify right up front: I am not a power user. As stated below, my main purpose for this tablet is displaying images from my SmugMug galleries, showing an occasional video, playing music, working email and my twitter and facebook accounts, reading a bit, and general messing around on the internet. I do not play games. If your usage is going to be more intense than that, then your conclusions may well be different than mine. That said…]

Though, as you know if you read this blog, I am convinced iPhone user (4), I have, so far, been able to resist the iPad. I have had one to play with for several weeks on two different occasions (to facilitate app reviews) and it simply does not do enough, in my opinion, beyond the iPhone to justify a minimum investment of $500.

That does not mean, though, that I don’t suffer, in this pre-CES season of tablet fever, a certain amount of tablet envy. And there are a few specific things I could use a tablet for where neither my iPhone or my laptop will do as well.

For one, I travel to a variety of birding destinations each year, and do a lot of photography and videography. It would be excellent to have a device that could easily display what I had shot that day for folks I meet, without having to fire up the laptop. And, of course, web surfing, while possible on the iPhone (and actually quite good by any reasonable comparison) would obviously be better and easier on a larger screen. (Oh bananas, lets be honest, almost anything beyond making a phone call would be easier on a bigger screen.)

The difficulty, as you know if you have been paying attention to tablet fever this year, is that there are not many good alternatives to the iPad out there. There have a slew of Android tablet introductions and announcements over the past 6 months, but the actual products that have made it to market range from disappointing at the lower price end (most are truly cheap China iPad knock-offs)…to just as expensive as an iPad at the somewhat more satisfying end (the Samsung Galaxy Tab). CES may see some movement here, but my feeling is that devices that have anything like the performance of an iPad are going to be priced at least in the same range as the (so far disappointing) Viewsonic G…$400 plus…or at the iPad level (Galaxy Tab), and the under $300 offerings are going to continue to be poorly designed toys with marginal performance.

Which is what makes the new Generation 8 Internet Tablets from Archos stand out. The Archos 70 and the Archos 101 are particularly attractive iPad alternatives. They share the same relatively powerful ARM 8 processor running at a gigahertz, Open GL graphics acceleration, and both have been upgraded to Android 2.2 lately. With a simple hack (provided by a passionate Archos fan), you can have the full Android Market, and all the Google apps. And this from a company that has been making touch screen multimedia players for many years, and internet tablets for several…a company that has shown itself to be responsive to customer needs, and which has fan community that is just as passionate, if not as large, as the Apple folks.

It was the last two factors, actually, that convinced me to order a 101, one Saturday when they had them in stock for about 4 hours on the Archos.com web-store. Some of the China Pads look like they could be made to work, especially for my purposes, and they are considerably less expensive, but you have absolutely no assurance of on-going support. Android is a moving target, with frequent version upgrades (2.2 is just out, and already folks are readying 2.3 upgrades) and with each upgrade someone has to design custom firmware for your particular machine. I have confidence, based on history, that Archos intends to keep up. And, with the active fan community, you are not totally reliant on the company at that…a visit to the ArchosFans forums is vastly reassuring to the potential buyer…or at least is was to this potential Archos owner.

And a word about the obvious differences between Android and iOS. Android is clearly not as polished or as tablet ready as iOS, which Apple tweaked specifically with the iPad in mind. However, as mentioned above, Android is an open source operating system in rapid development, and stands to make significant tablet related gains over the next few upgrades. Then too, it is an open source, open system, vastly different than Apple’s closed system. You can customize and adapt to heart’s content. And, given the fanatical Android development community, if you can conceive of an improvement to your user experience on an Android machine, someone has probably anticipated you, and there is already an app for that. As I will detail further in, I have already replaced the stock Android keyboard, the home screen/app launcher, the stock internet browser, and the Gallery and twitter client supplied by Archos, etc. etc. It is easy, and it certainly appeals to my inner geek!

Don’t get me wrong. It is not that the out of the box Archos experience would not be satisfying to most people…I think it would be…it is just that it can easily be improved. To put it another way, those looking for a first internet tablet experience at less than the cost of an iPad are likely to be satisfied, out of the box, with the Archos gen8 machines. If your expectations have already been colored by some exposure to the iPad, and you are hoping for iPad like performance or better, then you will need to make a few changes to the basic user experience by installing the Market hack, and switching out or replacing some apps, and adding others…but, given the will, in very short order, in my opinion, you will have an internet tablet experience that rivals that of the iPad, for just over half the price.

You can have all the fun of customization, or you can be guided by my experiences…which I will detail later on.

First a few notes about the machine itself. Build quality is very good, a mixture of metal, plastic, and glass, but clearly not up the quality of the iPad. Price you pay for the lower price. It feels solid in your hands, but the plastics creak a bit when handled. The capacitive touch screen, full multi-touch, is excellent: As responsive as my iPhone 4, and certainly as responsive as the iPad. The screen is bright and sharp, with a resolution of 1024×600…fully adequate for viewing images or videos. The viewing angles have come in for some criticism on the various forums and review sites, and, while it may be more limited than the iPad, it is, imho, perfectly adequate* for almost any use. The built in kickstand is excellent for adjusting the angle of the screen for maximum quality and ease of use. (Tip…invest in an inexpensive mouse pad and put it under the 101 and kickstand while it is standing…this will make the whole thing much more stable.)  In my experience so far, it handles video up to 720p HD fairly well. The Video player becomes sluggish and unresponsive with large (10 minute) H264 HD, but it plays them fine. It is just difficult to pause or change volume. The only vids I have not been able to play smoothly are the native Motion JPG (.mov) HD files right out of my Canon cameras. The speakers are barely adequate, but actually a cut above most found on laptops.

General performance for applications is pretty snappy. The latest firmware for Android 2.2 (released on December 16th) allows you to set the processor speed and performance to three different levels, including full on 1GHz, and on that setting the 101is as responsive as the iPad or iPhone 4 on most applications.  The one exception is the stock Andriod launcher, which can develop an annoying lag when returning from an app, but that is a software issue and easily fixed by installing any number of free launcher alternatives (more on that later).

Archos is still waiting on Adobe certification of their own Flash 10.1 plugin, but the stock 10.1 from the Market will at least allow most flash based websites to display properly, and will play standard embedded YouTube video fairly well…though it struggles more with HD. (The dedicated YouTube app works fine for any YouTube video I have thrown at it so far.) I check the Archos website daily to see if Flash is ready. No joy so far.

Other really nice hardware touches are the Micro SD card slot for expanding internal storage (up to 32G), the Micro USB port for connecting to your computer and mounting both internal storage and Micro SD if you have one installed, and the standard sized USB host port, which allows you to use USB sticks, Flash Card Readers, and even external drives if they are low power or have their own power supply (I have a feeling even a low power drive would drain the 101 battery pretty fast and might give unreliable performance…but self powered drives should work fine). USB support is a bit spotty in my experience, with mount and unmount issues frequent, but I am learning to work with it for the most part. My general impression is that it is better to unmount from the Archos instead of the computer…and you need to use the Notifier Unmount for the USB host, not the one in the settings panel :).

The 101 also has HDMI out, though I have not experimented with it. Archos claims it is the only implementation that allows you to put the whole Android experience on your HD TV (while using the 101 as a control pad). I am not a gamer, so I can’t say how this works with games, but it does seem an attractive option.

Of course it has an accelerometer and position censor so everything (or most things) auto rotate from landscape to portrait and back, and you can use the devise itself to control many games.

Okay..so lets talk about the apps that transform the 101 from an satisfying Android internet tablet to a superior internet tablet experience.

The first thing to do is to make sure your firmware and version of Android is up to date. Eventually Archos will start shipping units with 2.2 installed, but if you have a unit with 2.1 it should tell you an update is available when you first boot up the machine. If not, go to Settings > About > Firmware Update and initiate the process.

Once 2.2 is installed, you should go online on your computer and find the latest version of gappsinstall.apk. Try ArchosFans.com or the Archos gen8 forum on XDA Developers or just google it. As of this writing, the current version is v5, but the author says v6 is near. Find the latest one. You should find instructions with it, but just in case, download it to your computer, mount the 101 via USB cable to your computer, drag the downloaded file into the top level of your internal storage (as in, in no folder). Unmount your 101 (press Stop USB on the Archos screen) and unplug the USB cable. Using the Files app, find the gppsinstall file, touch it and choose install. Then, find the app itself in your main apps window, and run the app. That will install the latest version of the Market app, and a few other google basics. (You will have access to the majority of apps, but some will still be hidden. There is a fix for that.  More on that later).

The first app I downloaded and installed was GMail. If you use GMail, and especially if you are already addicted to threaded conversations, Google style, there is no point in using the EMail app Archos bundles with the 101.

IMG_8323IMG_8324Since I intend to use the 101 as a photo viewer, the Gallery app got attention next. The stock app is okay, but there are better viewers out there. QuickPic is amazing, very like the photo viewer on iOS, and based on folders, which it automatically locates by contents, even if they are on your expansion Micro SD card. It does everything I need it to do and does it really fast. I like it.

If you use SmugMug for online image storage and viewing, SmugFolio does a good job of automatically downloading your galleries (unattended) and displaying the contents even when you are not on-line. Somehow it stores the images in a fraction of the space the real jpg files would take, so it is practical even if you, as I do, have thousands of images on SmugMug.

You will want the official YouTube app if you do any YouTube at all. As above, it handles any YouTube video with aplomb.

And, while on video, find Adobe Flash Viewer 10.1. it is not optimized for the Archos machines, and eventually Archos will replace it with one that is, but the one in the Market works for now, at least for viewing lower resolution embedded video and your usual flash animations.

Again, the stock Android browser is okay, but there are better browsers out. Dolphin HD is my favorite…fast, tabbed, themed, excellent all around.

It is maybe a matter of taste, but I do not like the stock Android keyboard. The offset space bar drives me crazy. I found Better Keyboard in the Market and downloaded it. It is pretty good, but…

The keyboard you really want is Swiftkey, and you have to do the Market fix mentioned above to find it. Searching for Swiftkey before the fix returns no matches. Here’s how to fix it.

  1. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Market (Clear Cache then ‘Force Stop’ — DO NOT clear data)
  2. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Google Services Framework (Clear data then ‘Force Stop’)
  3. Return to the Home screen.
  4. REBOOT

Once you do these steps, you will find all kinds of previously hidden apps in the Market the next time you run it. I am not sure why, but there it is.

IMG_8321Search for Swiftkey now and at least download the trial version. I ran the trial for about 10 minutes realizing I could not live without it and buying and installing the full version…despite the fact that I had already bought Better Keyboard. (Follow onscreen prompts when you first run Swiftkey to install it as your default keyboard, and download the correct language module for predictions.) Swiftkey fits the 101 screen better…is way easier to type on…has superior prediction…has a much more intelligent number and alternate keys system (you don’t have to shift to number for numbers or other symbol keys…just hold the key down just a bit longer and the secondary character will be entered (ie, hold T down and 5 is entered…hold ? down and ! is entered…it is so IMG_8322brilliant!). If you do shift to numbers, you get a new keyboard with a number pad on one side and symbols on the other…so intelligent! Going a level deeper with the symbol key gives you a full set of left/right/up/down keys to move the cursor around in your text…which is a real blessing for those of us with large finger tips). If you are like me, you will never return to stock!

And speaking of stock…the stock 2.2 launcher/home screen is kind of creaky. It has strange lags and does not always respond as expected. There are better alternatives. The two I tried are Launcher Pro and Zeam, both free apps. Launcher Pro does not quite scale to the 101 screen, probably because of Archos’ use of soft buttons on the right side of the screen. Still it only takes a slight drag to make it align itself. Launcher Pro is, all and all, an improvement over stock, but the one I settled on is Zeam. It uses picsay-1293458954less resources, is slightly faster, and scales to the 101 screen perfectly. I have mine set to a single home screen, since I don’t intend to use many apps, and since most of my common apps fit in the app tray on the right side of the screen (or bottom if you run in portrait…and you are not limited to 5 apps in the tray as you are in LP). Adding actions and widgets is dead easy…I even added the Show Notifications action to my tray, since I will be using it often to unmount USB stuff (as above).

IMG_8325What else? If you have to move large files, you will need a better file manager than the stock Files. I looked for one that had drag and drop…I mean we are a touch machine here…and found ScaliCommander. Despite some luke-warm reviews, it works well, and allows me to drag files from my camera’s SD card in a Card Reader in the USB port to internal storage. Move does not work for files and folders of any size, but Copy does, even for massive Video files. It will also allow you to view the full file system, not just the storage level as the stock app does. You can open folders in multiple panels and literally drag and drop as you do in Windows or the Mac OS. I tried others first, but Scali is the only one that let me copy large files.

Weather apps? Weather Channel, hands down. The most complete display of info by far, including hourly and 10 day forecasts, the ability to turn off GPS (necessary on the 101) and enter locations manually, and three sizes of widget…widgets that don’t hang the machine up on launch when there is not yet a wifi connection (which WeatherBug does…I even took WeatherBug off my laptops, since it gave me lots of trouble there too). Accuweather just won’t run without the GPS. So, despite the fact that Accuweather is in the unfixed market and it requires the fix to find Weather Channel, it is Weather Channel all the way.

The only Facebook app I have tried is the official free one, and it is fine, though I miss the ability to add bookmarked profiles or pages (as you can do in the iPhone version).

picsay-1293459614Archos ships the 101 with the free version of Toutier, which is not bad, except in comparison with the best of the iPhone twitter clients. I liked it well enough to buy the full version, but I soon noticed that is very slow to update the lists on launch compared to other Android clients, especially if have more than one account. I will, by the way, offer an expanded comparison of twitter clients for Android on tablets in the near future, but for now, I tried the official free Twitter inc. app (not well suited to tablet use), the free and Pro versions of Twidroyd (not bad but somehow clunky, reminiscent of the ultra powerful but interface-challenged Twittelator Pro for the iPhone), and finally settled on Tweetcaster Pro…which has, imho, the best mix of features and usability. It is, for instance, the only one to give you unread counts for tweets and replies. There is some funkiness when you first open the app as the splash screen forces portrait…but as soon as that clears the app works fine in landscape on the 101.

Of course I have Hootsuite on there for its unique ability to post, and to schedule future posts, to multiple twitter, facebook, and facebook pages accounts. (With a scroll to top feature Hootsuite could be my full time social media client.)

I downloaded and used Google Reader for a while…but like the web app on the iPhone, GR for Android is just a bit clumsy to use (well, more than a little bit). To read a post, you have to open its folder, then select the feed, or chose all, then select the title, which opens the title alone on a screen, then select the title again to open the post. Not pretty.  If you are reading a post and want to go back to the main menu to open another folder, you have backtrack through way too many screens to get there. The same thing happens when you mark a post or group of posts read…you have to back all the way out to get to another folder. Not pretty and not inspiring.

Though it is relatively expensive, the pro version of NewsRob is everything Google Reader should have been. Easy to use, displays the feeds attractively (much like they appear on the Google Reader web site on the computer), fast, and simple to navigate. NewsRob was designed by someone who must spend considerable time reading feeds, and it shows.

If you are Kindle user, the Kindle app, though it only works in portrait, will allow you to read your Kindle books on the Archos. Nook is also available. What I can see, is using the Archos for reading color books and magazines as they become available…and if you are considering the Nook Color for Christmas, you really might want to check out what $50 more gets you from Archos (though if reading were my primary purpose I would look a the Archos 7o instead of the 101.)

I have found a few more apps which I may review in more detail later on: PicSay Pro is an excellent photo editor, Tripit is its generally elegant self, there are calculators and converters for travelers, etc. etc,

I have only had the Archos 101 Internet Tablet for 4 days now, and I am still figuring the thing out. Besides being my first tablet, it is my first Android device of any kind. There are, apparently, all kinds of hidden features to Android 2.2. It took me 3 days to find the Notification panel (accessible by pulling down the Notification bar at the top of the screen), and someoneon ArchosFans forum (Brownrat, thank you) had to point out the Unmount function of Notifications for USB devices. I don’t think I would have ever have found that. Just a few moments ago I discovered that there is a menu on the main apps page that gives instant access to Manage Apps and Uninstall. I am not sure if that is a feature of Android or of Zeam but it is something I know I will use, now that I know where it is.

Then too, my other primary discovery already is how very, very small the iPhone 4 is :).

Already I can see that the Tablet is going to be an essential part of my internet and social experience. I have a little pay as you go MiFi from Virgin Mobile that should work most places I visit. Makes an ideal companion for the Archos 101.

And I have to say that all those companies who are pinning hopes on an imminent introduction of yet another Android tablet are going to have difficulty matching the functionality, the quality, and value of the Archos gen8 Tablets. Archos has pretty well hit the sweet spot with a combination of powerful hardware; a flexible, adaptable, perfectible, OS and software package; and a price that makes it an easy, almost an impulse, buy.

No wonder no one can keep them in stock.


*Screen angles: there is a lot of discussion of how bad the Archos screen is, with some people getting pretty heated about it, on the forums. The best viewing angle on my screen in landscape mode is about 15 degrees below perpendicular to the surface, which puts the tablet at just about the ideal angle (about 30° to the surface it is resting on) for typing or working with it propped up on its stand on a table. It is also the angle that tablet assumes when held naturally in my hands. Though I lose some contrast when I view from either side of screen I don’t see any significant change in brightness or contrast through an angle of about 60°, 30° on either side of straight on. If I tip the screen back so I am further below the ideal angle, I have an additional 20° before I lose significant contrast. If I tip the screen up toward me, I begin to lose brightness at the bottom edge of the screen almost immediately, but it is usable through about 10°. That amounts to a vertical viewing angle of about 30°. In Portrait mode, the angles are the same, though the ideal angle moves to straight on perpendicular to the screen. That means that I have more angle to the right than I do to the left, with the tablet held normally with the ports up, and lots of room for tipping the screen in the vertical dimension. I could, of course put the more generous angle on the other side by tipping the whole device over. For my use this is “adequate” viewing angle.

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Written by singraham

December 22, 2010 at 4:46 pm

iBird Pro HD: iBird Pro for the iPad

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IMG_0123If you take my recent review of the latest version of iBird Pro for the iPhone and shuffle it together with my review of iBird Yard for the iPad, you would get just about a perfect review of iBird Pro HD. To put it another way, iBird Pro HD builds on the exceptional user interface of iBird Yard, one of the most effective uses of the iPad’s potential we are likely to see. It has the same amazing search engine, with instantaneous predictive search…but it includes iBird Pro for iPhone’s full 924 species, the full set of illustrations and photos, all the photos, the extensive identification and conservation notes, and and the new expanded set of sound recordings from Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It also, like iBird Pro, allows multiple sets of notes on the species, multiple “Life Lists”, and multiple “favorites lists”.

So, to simplify matters, here are pertinent portions of the previous reviews, edited for iBird Pro HD.

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.

OverviewFeatures

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. Search on the iPad is both easier and more intuitive than the same experience on the iPhone.

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The search view on the iPad 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 list of possible search criteria, by the way, are already pre-qualified . 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 (this is such a unique feature that it is patented!). 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.

Nothing shows the difference between iBird Pro HD search and iBird Pro (iPhone) search better than a little demonstration. Search on the iPhone is, compared to search on the iPad, somewhat linier. Without multiple panels, you select a criteria from the master list view (say Common Location), make your selection on a separate screen (say Arizona), return to the master list, select another criteria (say Shape), make your selection on the Shape view (say Hawk-like), return to the list, select another criteria (say Size), make your selection (say Medium)…etc. The count of birds that match is only displayed after each selection in the header on the master criteria list…so you don’t know if a choice resulted in actual matches until you return there. On the master list view there is also a button to switch to a view of the matching birds. That is a lot of back and forth between screens, and your results are not visible until you make your final selection. It works, but it is not a lot of fun. See if you can follow the selection process in the screen shots below.

photo 9photo 4photo 5photo 6photo 7photo 8photo 2photo 10

On the iPad, you make your first selection in a panel that contains the criteria list. The panel next to it fills with the selections for that criteria. Below each selection is the count of matches for that selection, and selections which result in no matches are grayed out. As soon as you make your selection the third panel fills with the birds that match. You can then tap another criteria and the selection panel refills (note the little red selected indicator on the first criteria we selected), again with the number of matches for each selection displayed. At any time you can tap the History button to view all previous selections in this search or to clear your search. As soon as you make your selection the third panel again fills with the matching birds. Very easy and very intuitive. Take a look at the screen shots.

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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. 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 Pro HD 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: over 5 hours of reference standard sounds from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both songs and calls, with multiple recordings for many birds.

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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! (And is also now available in the latest version for iPhone.)

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 Pro HD 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.

Let me make it clear here, that what I am expressing is a preference for the device, the iPhone, and not for the applications. There is no doubt that iBird Pro HD on the iPad offers a better user experience, overall, than iBird Pro on the iPhone, and that the features unique to the larger platform make it, overall, the more useful app…but I still do consider any app that runs on the iPad  a field guide…in the sense that I would not carry the iPad, no matter how good the app, regularly in the field. On the other hand, if I were a birder with both an iPhone and an iPad, I would not even consider running iBird Pro on the iPad…iBird Pro HD is simply a superior program on the iPad platform.

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 Pro HD 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 Pro HD…and it is going to be good.

Written by singraham

September 25, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Posted in app, iBird, iOS, iPad, iPhone 4

iPhone Navigation in an iPhone 4 / iOS 4 Age

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photoAs I have mentioned before, I seem to collect Navigation apps for the iPhone. Back in the days of my 16GB 3G, I only had room for one at a time on my iPhone. With my new 32GB iPhone 4, I have them all loaded on there temporarily, while I sort out which one I like best and will keep on the device. And, since Navigon was slow getting to the iOS 4 upgrade, I seem to have added another paid app, and, oh, I picked up another free one as well (why not?).

iOS 4 has added a whole new dimension to turn by turn GPS. No matter what other app you have open…iPod, Phone, Maps, Around Me, etc, etc. you nav app will continue to keep track of where you are on your route and give you turn by turn instructions. In fact…you can’t shut it off unless you open the App Tray and specifically quit the app. The Home button just puts the app in the background. Sounds simple, but it is truly revolutionary!

So right now I have the following Navigation apps on my iPhone 4 (in the order in which I acquired them).

Navigon North America (iOS4, $79.00 + lifetime traffic subscription charge)
CoPilot Live  (iOS4, $19.99 + yearly traffic subscription charge)
MotionX GPS Drive (iOS4, $.99 + monthly turn by turn and traffic charge)
Magellan RoadMate (not iOS4, $59.99, no traffic )
TomTom USA (iOS4, $39.99 + yearly traffic subscription)
MapQuest (free with free traffic)

Let me say up front that any one of these apps will get you where you are going relatively painlessly, most of the time. With the exception of MapQuest, they all have similar basic feature sets. MapQuest is the odd app out in that it does not have destination up mode, which for me is a deal breaker, no matter how good the rest of the implementation is or how cheap it is. That said, each app brings at least one or two unique, or at least rare, features to the navigation experience…and one app (not, interestingly enough, the most feature rich) has definitely emerged as my favorite for day in day out navigation.

What you can expect from all of them: audible turn by turn instructions with at least one voice that does text to speech and reads street names. Music controls with in the app (though is is far less critical in iOS4). Routing with at least some customization. 2D or 3D map display. Day and Night modes. Navigate to Contacts (the most problematic feature on any Nav app). POIs. All the apps that offer live-traffic (that would be all of them except RoadMate) also offer live local search (generally via Google).

So briefly, app by app.

Navigon Navigator: on-board maps.  The first turn by turn navigation app on the iPhone, and still the clear leader in the features war. Now fully iOS4 able. Not only 3D maps but Panorama View 3D, with elevations (hills, valleys, mountains, etc) mapped in a realistic landscape. You have to see your road wind up a mountain pass. Way cool! The most comprehensive speed limit information with speeding warnings (Caution she says, gently but firmly). Excellent lane assist on major highway intersections. Well implemented traffic and local search. And, very unique, a my route feature that maps 3 routes for you to choose from and learns from your choices. The life time traffic and local search subscription somewhat mitigates the high initial cost of the app.

On the down side, the most complex, awkward, and slow UI of any navigation app. Maxes the processing ability of any phone less able than the iPhone 4, and pushes the limits there. Noticeable lags in typing, choosing, searching, etc. Occasionally, in my experience, makes questionable routing decisions. Only reads one of the possible choices for a street or road name with more than one name on the map…and often not the most logical or helpful. And, another little thing, the text to speech voice has no way of saying “continue on this road” so she is always telling me to keep left when she means go straight ahead.

I pretty much trust this app, and really like the slick Panorama display…but I find that I do not use it due to the slow interface, if I have an alternative available.

CoPilot Live: The second turn by turn app on the iPhone, and always among the most affordable of the apps with on-board maps. I really like the look of the maps…colorful, cartoonish, fun…however this is not an door to door app. It gets you to a section of a local street with a range of numbers and that is as close as it gets. Also, in my experience, the maps are, by a narrow margin, the least accurate of any of the nav apps. And there is no real lane assist for most intersections. The turn by turn voice gives more complete instructions than Navigon. Despite its limitations, the price is right for a app with on-board maps, and it will do a credible job of getting you there.

Motion X GPS Drive: another absolute bargain, even if you pay the monthly subscription fee for turn by turn and traffic. However, this app depends on a live internet connection (wifi or 3G) for maps and routing. No on-board maps.  While in most urban situations, that is not a huge drawback, where I often travel it makes this my back-up app of choice, but not my primary choice.

The UI is among the slickest and quickest, the POIs are, of course, since they are always live, the most up-to-date., address entry is the simplest and most logical of any app…you type in the address naturally…number, street, city, state, zip…rather than the reverse pick one at a time method all the other apps apply. There is a lot to like. The Bing maps as quite good. If you are on a budget and don’t travel where 3G gets thin, then there is really no reason to spend what an on-board map app would cost you. Motion X will get you there just fine.

Magellan Road-Mate 2010. Don’t go there. Slick interface, but slow and limited turn by turn (no turn now for instance, just a beep). The least accurate rendering of where you are on the maps. No iOS 4 ability. Just don’t go there. A real disappointment from one of the leaders in stand-alone GPS.

MapQuest: a great app for free. No destination up mode (North is always up, which means you are traveling across the map horizontally much of the time). Not for me.

TomTom USA: So, the last is, imho, the best. This is the app I use 99% of the time, and the more I use it, the more things I find to like. Fast, logical, elegant and attractive UI that is a pleasure to interact with. Excellent maps. Comprehensive lane assist. The most complete turn by turn directions of any app by far: she reads all the names of streets or roads with multiple possible names, just in case…gives audible warning of close second turns, directs you toward signed landmarks, tells you when to go straight on, gives multiple warnings of upcoming turns, gives audible lane guidance (in addition to the excellent lane assist diagrams), etc. etc. The first time she said “at the end of the road, turn left onto Ridge Road, State Route 6 , Maine Street, toward Lancaster College, and keep in the left lane…” it was love. This lady knows how to tell a fella where to go!

Though the speed limit system is not as comprehensive as Navigon’s (less rural roads and village streets), the warning system (visual and audible) is great. The maps are attractive and, in my experience, remarkably accurate…and TelNav (supplier of the map data) maintains and easy site for users to submit updates. I have submitted three and gotten responses confirming my input and promising revisions on the next issue of maps.

Live traffic is handled well. Traffic and time of day is taken into consideration in all routing, and, when a  route slows down enough for there to be a quicker alternative, you are offered the option of taking it.

And routes are highly customizable. The app computes the most logical and fastest route (if that is what you ask for) but you can tell her you want to go via some POI or address (including an address from your Contacts) and she will reroute you that way. You can also call up a map of the route and touch to select an alternative routing, and she will obediently send you that way. This is a great way, by the way, to test alternative routes. Very very cool. (And that is in real time…there is a Planning mode that allows you to do all this at your leisure and save the route for when you need it…amazing!

Finally, like Navigon, TomTom is integrated with Around Me, my favorite alternative to Google search on the iPhone for finding specific types of POIs by category or name…restaurants, convenience stores, drug stores, doctor’s offices, etc. Around Me will often find an obscure POI like a state or regional park when nothing else will, and you can instantly send the destination to TomTom for routing. I use it a lot.

I have now used TomTom in rural Maine and urban California, and it is yet to let me down. I trust it. It gets me where I am going, and makes the trip as stress free as possible.

I have, almost literally, tried them all, and TomTom just does what I need it to…which is, basically, to get me where I am going…better than all the rest. Motion X GPS Drive will stay on my iPhone for backup, but TomTom will be the app I keep on board for all my day to day navigation needs.

There. that is done. Now I can take about 6 Gigs of apps off my iPhone!

Written by singraham

August 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

iBird Pro for iPhone Revisited: still the best (and even better)!

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IMG_1000000410While we wait for iBird Pro for iPad to appear in the app store, it might be a good time to revisit iBird Explorer Pro for iPhone, in some detail, for those who are not familiar with the application, or who have not considered it in a while.

IMG_1000000421Version 3.0, just released, is a major upgrade…adding, first and foremost, over 5 hours of reference standard sounds from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both songs and calls, with multiple recordings for many birds. This removes, to a large extent, the only clear competitive advantage some iPhone field guides have had over iBird. (Note also, the Similar Sounding list…it is much more extensive on some birds.)

In addition, version 3.0 offers multiple Favorite lists and, if you are using iOS4 and the latest iTunes, the ability to sync both Favorite Lists and Species Notes to your desk/laptop. This makes it possible to use one Favorite List as a Life List, and another as a trip list (not ideal yet, but possible). If after syncing you store the lists and notes in separate folders, you can even keep multiple sets. (There is a through tutorial on the More page that helps with the use of multiple Favorite Lists and sets of Species Notes.)

IMG_1000000432IMG_1000000436There are also a few refinements to the UI…most notably Size and Length sliders where appropriate in Search mode, and, though a simple thing, shadowing at the ends of the navigation bar at the bottom of the Species screens that makes it clear (for the first time, see the screen shot above) that the thing slides left or right to reveal more options! A simple thing, but it should eliminate some initial frustration on the part of new users. The Help section has also been refined, with a new, more graphical delivery of the basics, and that should also ease the new user’s pain considerably.

Those are the most important new features, but let us revisit the feature set that makes this the best of the field guides currently on the iPhone. We will begin with the reference section.

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Basic illustrations of all 924 species

Supplemental illustrations of many

Multiple photographs of almost all

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Full size portrait mode for detail

Access to 1000s of Flickr images
And Birdapedia, (No screen shot)

Detailed, accurate, range maps

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Pages of identification detail

Table of interesting facts

Conservation status information

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Family information

Illustrated similar Species list with live links to the species.

ability to add notes to species

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ability to use multiple favorite lists

Where the female is not illustrated…

photos are provided.

But the reference section is only half the program. The search section offers the most comprehensive and useful set of search criteria of any of the iPhone filed guides…setting a standard that will be hard to match. As mentioned above, where appropriate, sliders and pickers are employed, but the real strength is the graphical approach to criteria. Anything that can be illustrated, is.

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Pages of search criteria organized into logical groups.

illustrated, icon driven,  search criteria…

Icons

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Icons

Icons

sound sample for song search

As criteria are selected the number of species that match is shown at the top of the search screen.

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Matched birds update with each criteria.

as so…

you can view any group.

 

A complete list of criteria looks like this:

Basic Group
Location (Common)
Location (Uncommon)
Shape
Size
Habitat
Color Primary
Color Secondary
Backyard Feeder
Family
Conservation Status
Observed State/Month

Song
Song
Song Pattern

Body Related
Length Range
Weight Range

Flight Related
Wing Shape
Flight Pattern
Tail Shape
Wingspan
Leg Color

Pattern Related
Head Pattern
Breast Pattern
Belly Pattern
Back Pattern

Head Related
Crown Color
Forehead Color
Cere Color
Throat Color
Nape Color
Eye Color
Bill Shape
Bill Length
Ear Tuffs

Miscellaneous
Game Bird
Order

As I have mentioned in past reviews, iBird’s search mode can be an excellent tool to teach new birders the kinds of things they should be looking for as they are observing birds in the field.

With this breath of features and depth of solid information, iBird Explorer Pro for iPhone 3.0 continues to set the standard, not only for what a birding field guide can be on the iPhone, but for what any iPhone field guide can aspire to. There is more information here at the tips of your fingers than any birder could digest in a lifetime…but it is all information that a birder might need, sometime, somewhere. The magic is that, with iBird Explorer Pro, it is right there in your pocket!

Written by singraham

August 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

iPhone 4!: living up to expectations

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iPhoneI skipped the iPhone 3GS…it just came at the wrong time in my AT&T contract, and the reasons to upgrade, video and a slight speed bump, were just not compelling enough to shell out what it would have cost me for the early upgrade.

Of course, that made me particularly eager for Apple’s next iPhone offering. I followed every rumor for more than a year. The leaked iPhones, with their tantalizing mix of new features and new look, along with tidbits gleaned from the developer versions of iOS4, only built my anticipation and solidified my determination to upgrade. I followed the actual iPhone 4 announcement on live-blogs and twitter. And, of course, after a frustrating hour with Apple’s site, I preordered my iPhone 4 upgrade direct from AT&T at just after 5AM on the 15th.

Ordering from AT&T meant that I was not one of the folks who got their iPhone 4 on the 22nd or the 23rd. Mine came on the 24th, when I was 300 miles from home, with a daughter at her college orientation. Sigh. Still it was there when I got home on Friday night, and I had it activated and all my apps and music loaded before bed-time.

I have now lived with it for 3 weeks, and I can honestly say, despite all the flap about the antenna problem, it has lived up to every expectation.

Lets get the antenna issue out of the way right up front. My impression so far is that the actual performance on both voice and data is slightly to greatly better (depending on where you are) than my iPhone 3G. It is really had to tell. Though 3G coverage in Southern Maine is pretty good, we live in an AT&T pocket, where reception has always been a problem. I have tried antennas and signal boosters. Nothing helps much. I show maybe one bar more with the iPhone 4 than I did with the 3G…maybe…the signal comes and goes (I think the technical term is breathes)…but then it has always done that here. On a visit to Rockland this week, which is outside the 3G coverage, I was able to get emails and send texts over EDGE in areas where I had not been able to 6 weeks ago with my 3G. This is a good sign. I have yet to drop a call or have a data transfer fail. This is also a good sign.

[Note 7/16: iOS 4.0.1 cured this particular problem…I can no longer make the bars drop with the case on! This is good, I think.] On the other hand, even with a case on, I can, in some situations, especially when the phone is showing high bars, make the bars drop by shielding the bottom left side of the phone with my hand. Maybe it is my aura? If I change my grip, I can watch the bars climb back up. On the other hand, in these same areas the bars fall and climb even with the phone lying flat on a table not being touched at all.

I will be traveling to the west coast the week after next, so I will give the phone and AT&T’s network a real workout. I will report back. So far, though, while I admit that I would be happier if the signal were always at 5 bars, I am pretty pleased with the iPhone 4’s performance as a phone.

[Note 8/7: I have now taken several trips with the iPhone 4 and I can definitely say that overall phone reception is better than my iPhone 3G. Quite a bit better. Even in north coastal California, where EDGE was all, the phone still worked fine. And I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of 3G I was able to pick up, even in the more rural areas of CA. This is good.]

Lets be plain: in every other way, the iPhone 4 and iOS4 simply blow away any other portable computing device or platform I have ever owned or imagined. The iPhone 4 is blazingly fast compared to my 3G. Apps open faster, even from a cold start. When iOS4 compliant apps return from saved state (that is when they have been open and active already) it really does feel like they were running all the time in the background. Apps that would barely run on the 3G (say Navigon or the Audubon Field Guide series) simply cruse on the iPhone 4. Even apps that were already fairly snappy on the 3G (my twitter clients like SimplyTweet or Osfoora) are noticeably snappier on the iPhone 4. Switching views, for instance, is instantaneous. Pop. This speed makes using useful apps just that much more enjoyable. Smile

I am, in fact, loving the app launcher tray, the folder system, the whole look and feel and logic of the new OS. It works for me.

Then there is the camera. You have to remember I am coming from a 3G, not a 3GS, and the improvement in the photo quality is simply stunning. The camera, like the OS, just works for me. I would never have considered my 3G camera a serious substitute for a real camera: crappy lens, no focus, iffy exposure, etc. On the other hand, if caught out in the world with just my iPhone 4, I could easily be a happy photographer. I would miss a zoom lens, but except for that, the camera does a very respectable job of capturing the world. And HD Video. It even works behind the eyepiece of my spotting scope for some emergency HD Vid  and decent stills of birds. [Note 7/16: In addition to the above, I have discovered new apps like AutoStitcher and Pro HDR that allow me to do things with my iPhone 4 camera that would be impossible (or at least much more difficult) with most conventional cameras.]

Oh, and did I mention the screen? Sharp. Vivid. Pretty okay outside (though not great…this is no OLED). It looks as good or better than the screen on my 11 inch laptop.

Finally, though it may seem silly, one of the things I especially like about the iPhone 4 is that I can carry it in a case without it taking up any more pocket space than my naked 3G…and this is good for both antenna reasons and for protection for that lovely, but fragile, glass back! (Not that I intend to drop it, even in the case! You see my iPhone in it’s iFrogz silicone case in the pic above.)

So…yes…the iPhone 4 is living up to my expectations and then some.

Written by singraham

July 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm

The iPad IS magic: but…

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photo 2 (1)I managed to avoid iPad fever so far by just not paying that much attention to the new platform, but I currently have an iPad on loan for a few days to do some reviews.

I have to say it: Steve Jobs is right. The iPad is magic!

Interacting with information with your fingers, as any iPhone or other touch screen smartphone user knows, is magical. With an intelligently designed interface, fingers make any action, even the most complex, feel intuitive and natural. Touch, drag, pinch, pull and simply flow through the information and the tasks. Even the virtual keyboard, once you get hang of it, can be addictive. Keys, especially the undersized keys on my Blackberry, now feel totally awkward. Of course, I can still touch type on my laptop much faster than I can thumb type on the iPhone…but the iPad’s keyboard is large enough so that I am pretty sure I could get up to speed on it after a few months of constant use. And, of course, keyboarding…word processing…is not what the iPad is really about anyway. There are so many more natural ways to interact with information…and the iPad does them well.

iBooks is simply an amazing way of reading textural materials. It is the most book-like reader so far and could easily replace books, and magazines, in my life completely. Programs like FlickStacker set a standard for how to deal with image viewing, commenting, etc. And apps like iBird Yard (soon to be Yard Plus) demonstrate what a true multi-media approach to a complex and information rich subject can be. A comparison of Twittelator or Osfoora on the iPhone and iPad tells the same story. The twitter clients only have to do a limited number of tasks well and deal with certain kinds of information, but even with that limited feature set, the experience is just a lot more fluid, and a lot more fun, on the iPad than it is on the iPhone. There is a new standard of information transfer emerging…and it is so far best exemplified by apps like iBird, FlickStacker, and Osfoora on the iPad.

Many of the same apps run on both iPhone and iPad. The difference is, on the iPad, with more screen to work with, everything is simply bigger, and easier…on the eyes and on the fingers. Multiple screen panels in a single view, scrolling pop-overs with their own sets of view options, pop-over selection menus…all add up to a more relaxed and natural information and task flow. You can do the same things on an iPhone as you can on the iPad…but doing so will always involve multiple views and a lot more view switching to accomplish the same tasks.

The trade off is portability. The iPhone fits in my pocket. The iPad, actually, takes up the same space as my 11 inch thin-and-light Acer 1810, with its dual core pentium processor, and 320 gb of storage. And battery life is not much different.

And there is the rub.

As magical as the iPad is, it can not replace either my iPhone (for portability) or my net/laptop (for power, storage, and access to apps like Office and Lightroom). What I can do on the iPad, I can also do on the iPhone…maybe not quite as elegantly, but certainly a lot more portably. What I can do on my Acer, I can not do on the iPad. Period. So far.

So, being the magical creature that it is, I certainly want an iPad. However, being the practical creature that I am forced to be in this world, I can not justify owing one. An iPhone? Yes. Certainly. I just preordered my iPhone 4 yesterday within hours of preorder becoming available, braving the crashing AT&T and Apple servers to do so. The iPhone is a tool I would not willingly live without.

But I can, unfortunately, do without an iPad.

I can do so, even knowing that my net/laptop represents the past…the old way of dealing with information…and will certainly drift into extinction over the next years with the rest of its breed, at least as a portable device. I can do so, even knowing that the iPad is certainly the future…the future of information transfer, delivery, and even creation. As long as I have my iPhone, and until a tablet comes that can run Lightroom and store multiple hundreds of gigabits of image files, I will have to resist the iPad and the future.

[And don’t bring up Cloud based alternatives to Lightroom…none are touch enabled…and all run on Flash, which the iPad and iPhone don’t do. Do not do!]

This hurts me. This hurts me a lot. But I just looked at what an iPad costs, along with its data plan, and I can make no other rational decision. The magic is selling a lot of iPads, and rightly so. The people buying them have seen the future and are plunging in in droves. But sometimes reason has to trump magic. Sad as that may be.

That does not mean that I don’t really long for a touch enabled version of Lightroom that runs on iOS 4, or Android, or Google Chrome OS…or a touch enabled cloud app that runs in a fully functional touch enabled browser and duplicates the things Lightroom does so well. I can feel the Vibrance slider under my fingers right now!

Sure. I want the magic too. 

Written by singraham

June 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

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.

OverviewFeatures

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.

Written by singraham

June 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm