Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Living the iLife

This fall, for my birthday, my parents sprung to get me an iPhone.  There were a few reasons for this, the first being that it made shopping for me unusually easy.  Another is that my mom and sister already had them and the goal, I think, is to bring the entire family into the iUniverse.  I have to admit that it's a pretty slick walled garden to live in.  There's a lot of nice features that work well for a family if everyone has one.

In addition my parents also got themselves an iPad and of course came to me with questions about what to get to put on it, with an eye to letting Xander (who's about to turn 5) play games on it.  Sadly I don't have a lot recommendations on that front but I thought I'd do a little write up of the various apps that have become indispensable in my iLife.

Most of what I'm going to talk about here was free, though many of them were only free for a limited time.  Always check prices before you buy an app and always be aware of the pricing models.  They've made some good changes to how Apple handles In App Purchases, but I still only marginally trust them with Xander around.

So... what's on my iPhone?

FlipBoard - Free

This app is a news aggregator.  You give it the feeds you want to follow and it sorts them out and lays them out in a magazine like format.  On the iPad it is simply gorgeous and it works incredibly well on the iPhone.  It is also available on Android.  You create a FlipBoard ID and it keeps track of your preferences across all devices.

And if you're not the sort who's savvy about RSS feeds and the like you can subscribe to several preset feeds based on your interests.  I strongly recommend the App feed because I get lots of heads up on free apps daily and I get some really fun apps that way.

Words with Friends - Free or Paid

I'm addicted to this game.  It's a perfect Scrabble game where you can play when you have time (assuming your friends understand a day or two between moves), and it's low stakes/ low pressure.  And it gives you a gaurunteed thing to talk about when you do see each other.

As a heads up, the paid versions are different between iPad and iPhone (one is HD one is not).  I ended up buying it twice, once for each device and you really don't need to, I don't think.

Train Conductor - $0.99

This is a fun little game for kids.  Trains go across the screen and it's your job to route them one way or the other to ensure that they get to the right numbered exit.  Xander played this for hours at my parent's anniversary party where he was the only kid.

Cut the Rope - Free or Paid

This is another "kids game" that has some pretty solid complexity to later levels.  Candy hangs from ropes and you need to maneuver it to the little alien who just wants a treat.  You swipe your finger to cut the rope and let it drop, pop bubbles that make it float, and tap balloons to help push it around.  The free version has a pretty good collection of levels though for the dollar (or two I forget) it's worth buying if you've got a kid who plays it a lot.

This is Xander's go-to game when he's got a chance to play on my old iPod.

Kid Pointz - Free

This app allows you to assign and take away points from your kids as they earn their way towards various rewards.  It's all stored on the KP server so it works across multiple devices.  You set the rules your child is going to follow, how many points for following or how many lost points for not, and then how many points they should have to earn before a reward.  In addition you can attach pictures to the rewards so that the kids can see what they're going for.

Now it doesn't work on the older iPods so I haven't played much with the child log in, but supposedly kids can request points for rewards, such as to say "hey, I did my homework can I have points for it?"  It really adds that dimension of letting them see how they are progressing.

Home Budget - $4.99

We use this app to keep track of our finances and it's amazing how easy it is to set up and use.  There's a small learning curve as to how you configure it and it's built with a lot of options we don't take advantage of.  For example you can track all of your money through this one app, including balances on credit cards, your bank balance, etc.  We use it for tracking expenses against our budget.  It comes preconfigured with expense categories and when you spend you just quickly tap in the amount.  You can opt to keep track of your balance by cycle, or by month, and see where you are in various categories.

It also has a bill tracker so you can keep track of when bills are due and set up reminders to mail them out on time.  We tend to pay bills as soon as they come in so that's another feature we really don't use.  About the only wish I would have for it is to include a optical scanner for receipts so I can just scan it and have the numbers pulled into the app.  Short of that you can photograph receipts and attach them to various expenses.

And like other good apps of this kind, it uses the server to sync multiple devices so everyone in the family can contribute.

My Fitness Pal - Free

This app tracks to the free website My Fitness Pal which is a great social platform for tracking diet and exercise.  You just put in what you eat and it does the rest.  The data base is searchable and so far nearly everything I've consumed I can find in there already.  In addition it has a barcode scanner to make entering food even easier.

Cook your own meals?  Just create the recipe and then enter it from there.  Now, as a small heads up, it does not take into account changes to food by cooking it.  So if you cook all of the fat out of a burger (we use a meatloaf pan that drains, for example) it won't take that fat out of the recipe when it calculates total calories etc.  I call that a fair trade for a free program.  It also has a social element in that you can track your friends and provide encouragements and admonishments.  I get reminders when a friend has lost weight, is under their calorie goal for the day, or has not logged in for a certain number of days.

Ring Maker - Free

My last app to show off is a free ring tone maker that I've used with pretty good success.  A small comment of caution:  If the song has DRM this won't work.  A lot of my library was purchased before iTunes went DRM free so I got suprised by not being able to create ringtones with them without first making the file DRM free.  If you're new to the iUniverse, this won't be a problem.  Just pick the song in your library, set the parts you want as a tone, and you're golden.  There is one catch in that you have to go into iTunes and move the file over before you can use it as a ring tone.  That's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid.

That said, once I got over that hump, it's a great little tool.

My parents expressly asked for apps for Xander and really there are only two here.  But, my best advice is to get some kind of reader, and subscribe to a Free App of the Day channel.  Lots of great kids games go free daily and it helps to have help knowing when.

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