App Reviews #1

Note: reviewing this blog posting while updating this blog for iPhone OS 3.0, I see a lot is quite outdated.   Eventually I’ll do another App Review posting, but for now just look at the Edit: portions. (06/2009)

Essential iPhone Apps

These are my most essential iPhone apps.  Other reviews may follow.

Where is a decent RSS Reader?

I’ve tried just about all of the native RSS Readers currently available for the iPhone and they all are very lame: NetNewsWire (free, syncs with News Gator), azRSS, iRSS, Feeds, and Bylines.  None of them do all the main things I would want: import/export OPML files, save starred items for offline reading, handle offline reading selectively, have easy ways to mark all as read.

For my money, the best thing you can do is create a Google Reader account and then use Google’s iPhone specific mobile Google Reader web app in Safari.  If you add it to your springboard, it even has a nice icon (like the other Google apps).  Then presumably, you can use the native app Byline (way overpriced at $9.99) to read offline Google reader content (like when you’re on an airplane).

Edit:  Since writing this, I’ve settled on the ATOM/RSS Reader by enormego. Not updated too frequently but does pretty much everything I want. There is also a free version, but check the limitations.

How to deal with lack of a Notes sync for the iPhone

Until Apple caves to huge demand for Notes synchronization with the iPhone (edit: which they have with iPhone OS 3.0), iPhone owners have been left to their own devices.

I’ve seen some recommend creating draft emails in Mail and synching mail.  Certainly one approach.

You might try keeping notes all online with Google Notebook and accessing them all through Safari.

The approach I’ve settled on is to use EverNote, which has a native iPhone app, and clients for Mac and Windows which sync nicely with its web based database.

(edit: If you have OS X and don’t use Mail, even the 3.0 notes synching still sort of sucks.  Even if you do, you have to sync with iTunes, not Over-the-Air.  So Evernote is still a very good solution.)

How to read ebook content from your computer offline

There are tons of options here already.  So far I would recommend Files or FileMagnet.  The former takes an approach using WebDav, where you set the iPhone side application up as WebDav server, then mount it in the OS X Finder like a volume.  FileMagnet uses a similar approach, but through bonjour networking, making use of an OS X side client application that allows you to drag & drop files onto it.  FileMagnet is much more slick in appearance, but Files appears to handle more kinds of Files for viewing.

Both of these handle PDFs, RTF, and MS .doc files pretty well. However neither handles the newer .docx files MS Word is now using by default.

There is also BookShelf, which probably handles more files than those two, including more kinds of Palm OS .pdb files (but not all of them).  The problem is the Java based “shelf server” approach it uses is so clunky its pretty much useless at this point.  If it could use the method that FileMagnet does, it would be the best.

(Edit: there are now even still more such apps, and the one I’m using as of 6/2009 is Air Sharing.)

Finally, I should mention Stanza, which unlike the three above is free.  Unfortunately it provides no way at all to get your own files onto it.  It does however allow you to download a fair number of classic works, for later offline viewing.

The best and most essential of the free apps:

YPMobile is not only a yellow pages but contains local event listings. Very useful.

Dial Zero is an offline database of toll-free customer service numbers with instructions about how to bypass useless automated systems and speak to a human.

Writing Pad is an excellent alternative to tapping letters on the keys.  (Edit: now called ShapeWriter. There is also a Pro version.) You basically trace words on the keyboard, with auto-guessing.  It’s quite accurate and impressive.  Unfortunately, you can only use it to compose a new email or a new note.  You can’t use it to reply to an email, to send an SMS, or for any other text entry.  Apple should buy this one.

AIM is of course AOL Instant Messenger.  It has a reputation for being buggy, but so far its been stable, and if you can hook up your friends, its cheaper than SMS.  Although I haven’t tried this, it’s even possible to send an SMS using it to a cell phone, without paying the SMS charges that your money grubbing carrier charges.

Urbanspoon has the best coverage of the location-based restaurant and entertainment guides.  It even has pretty good listings in my smallish college town.

Showtimes has good local movie listings. (Edit: even better now is Movies from Flixter which has Rotten Tomatoes reviews.)

Pandora Radio allows you to listen to customized radio streams with some very impressive artist coverage outside of the mainstream. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, you create custom stations just by entering in a couple of songs you like, and it extrapolates.

Last.fm is also good along similar lines if you use the service on your computer.

Currency is a good and free currency converter.

Save Benjis is a price comparison application along the lines of pricegrabber.

Tips: a lament, and an opportunity

There are currently about a billion tip calculators available. Almost all cost money, and none of them is complete.  Some have slick interfaces but lack essential features, and some have some essential features but not others, and some have many essential features but terrible interfaces.

So developers, since people seem to be willing to pay a buck, here are my tips:

  • have a slick interface using built-in interface widgets and big numbers.
  • don’t require any text entry: do everything with sliders or buttons, and save last settings
  • for sure deduct sales tax before calculating tips.
  • Include a US state sales tax value database at least. Better would be to support major international countries and their standard taxes and tips.
  • Include a bill splitting feature that shows amount owed by each person for both food and drinks and pre-tip and post-tip values, with a way to exclude non-drinkers.

(Edit: As of 6/2009 I’ve settled on iTipSmart, which does all of the above except the tax database.)

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