April 15, 2009
Some apps get all the attention, sitting atop the top 25 list just begging to be downloaded. Some slip down the list and out into the iTunes wilderness, never to be heard from again. Hidden Gems is about giving these apps the attention they deserve.
Wundrbar ($1.99)I sprung $1.99 for this app at the suggestion of Mark, a commenter on last week's column. I'm extremely happy I did. It's probably the best hidden gem yet. Wundrbar takes the search engines and mini web tools from dozens of sites and puts them all into a single app. It eliminates the need to have single purpose apps like the official Target app or the Amazon app or a unit conversion app. Instead, you can do all of this using Wundrbar because it hooks into the all the searches and tools offered by other Web sites. Google should really take notice of Wundrbar. Search on the iPhone is a different animal than search on the desktop. On the desktop, you can go to Google and search for "lasagna recipe." You'll find one that's pretty good after visiting a couple pages. On a limited bandwidth mobile phone, though, you don't have time to do that. You'll have to load each of these pages, none of which are optimized for mobile, and it'll take forever to find a good lasagna recipe. Instead, Wundrbar gives you the search engine for allrecipes.com. Just type in lasagna and the app loads the results page at allrecipes.com without leaving the app. Alternatively, I could have downloaded one of the many recipe apps in the App Store and looked for a good one in the app. But that process takes even longer than going to Google and now I'm stuck with a single purpose app on my phone I probably won't use again for another month. Here's another example of how Wundrbar works. When I go to visit my parents who live six hours away, I might take the train to see them. To do that, I go to Amtrak.com on my phone and use their awful Web site to find what times the train leaves and arrives. The Amtrak search in Wundrbar gives you all the relevant search criteria (stations, time, passengers) you would find on Amtrak's Web site and, when you hit search, it loads the results from Amtrak's Web site inside the app. That's far better than loading Amtrak's Web site on its own. That's just a taste, but there are searches for IMDB, numerous travel sites, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, Target, Best Buy, Amazon, among others. There are also simple little tools like Google: Unit Conversion or Google: Translate. The genius of Wundrbar is that it murders those single use apps that clog up your iPhone and, at the same time, makes it so much faster to search Web sites you only visit once in a while. Wundrbar is only a little over a month old and could definitely use some improvements, primarily with regard to personalization. You can pick favorites out of the list of sites available, but more robust customization with better categorization is definitely needed. As it stands, it's still a great buy and an amazing hidden gem. As a rule, search has been regarded as free but here I think they've earned it. I expect this app to improve over time simply because they're onto something here and would be stupid not to. Also, I dislike the icon. In fact, I despise it.
Wunder Radio ($5.99)I'm listing Wunder Radio here as the hidden gem, but, honestly, I think all radio apps are hidden gems simply because they should be used nearly every day by any iPhone user who also owns a car. Unfortunately, the experience of connecting your iPhone (or your iPod) to your car stereo sucks badly. An FM transmitter simply doesn't do a decent enough a job of brining the benefits of an iPhone to the car. In fact, it's actually worse than listening to the radio because of all the interference. As a result, Pandora, AOL Radio, Stitcher and other radio apps are not being appreciated, or used, as much as they should. It took me a while to sift through all the bad information and bad stupid salespeople out there, but I successfully connected my iPhone to the auxiliary input at the back of my car stereo for only $100, which is a little more than the cost of some FM transmitters. Using the dock connector or the headphone jack, I can now listen to my iPhone on my car stereo and it sounds wonderful. My original iPhone, using its meager EDGE connection, is capable of doing so much more than my traditional radio without sacrificing audio quality or having to deal with FM frequency interference. I can listen to any song or podcast on the iPod part of my iPhone, then switch over to MLB at Bat 2009 and listen to the live feed of the Chicago Cubs game, then I could go over to Stitcher and listen to The Onion radio news because I'll probably need a laugh after the game, then I can go over to Wunder Radio and listen to the live scanner feed of the Orange County Fire department. Wait, what? Yeah, Wunder Radio, which is totally unrelated to Wundrbar, has the live scanner audio feeds of many emergency dispatchers in addition to thousands of other radio feeds. I spent a half hour listening to the dispatches from one of my local fire departments. I heard the dispatcher tell "DT45" he might have to secure his own dinner tonight. How cool is that?! Though, seriously, when something bad happens I'm likely to know what's going down more quickly thanks to Wunder Radio's emergency scanner feeds. I wouldn't say it's worth $5.99, but for me it certainly brings back memories of high school, listening to the police on my $150 scanner. If you're not down with the $5.99 Wunder Radio, find your way to my absolute best hidden gem Web site for Californians. Outside of the police and the media, virtually nobody knows this site exists or that it works perfectly on the iPhone. My rubbernecking readers, feast your eyes on http://cad.chp.ca.gov/ Next time you're in bumper to bumper traffic or pass by a horrific accident on the freeway, the details of what happened are on this site, updated live by the police themselves. You don't have to wait for the 10 p.m. news or search the Internet, just come to the CHP Traffic Incident Information Page and get the word straight off the street. If you're outside of California and know of any similar site in your state, let me know and I'll add it to this post.
Weekly Hidden GemsI'm going light on the weekly hidden gems this week because I spent so much time with the other apps here.
Chopper Lite (Free)Years ago I sunk a good month of my life into Chopper as a free game on Mac OS X. Then I downloaded the iPhone game immediately when it came out. The tilt controls are accurate and the gameplay is addictive: fire rockets, drop bombs and pick up the stranded people. If you haven't played it before, try out the newly released lite version for free and see what distracted me so much in high school that l failed chemistry. OK, I failed chemistry because I was too stupid. But, the point is, it's a good game. Lastly, be sure to check out Coupon Sherpa and Doodle Jump, which are great but don't qualify as hidden gems because they're both in the top 10 lists of their respective app categories. Available at $1.99, Coupon Sherpa is a collection of digital coupons for major retailers. At a dirt cheap 99 cent price tag, Doodle Jump is an addictive game that's only been out a week but has already racked up three and a half stars and over 300 reviews in iTunes.
Majic Jungle Software