What makes an
truly great? Since the first moment we picked up Apple's groundbreaking slate, we realized apps for mobile devices would be changed forever. The hardware is impressive, and it opens the door for apps to include features that simply aren't possible on a cellphone.
We wondered, though — would any apps at launch really take advantage of the iPad's standout hardware? As it turns out, yes! Here are the three best examples of how to design a killer app for the iPad.
1. The Elements: a Visual Exploration ($13.99)
Who cares about the a periodic table of the elements? Lots of scientists do, but for the rest of us, it's pretty dry stuff. That is, until you get your hands on this magnificent app for the iPad. It's more of a sophisticated book than interactive application, looking like the kind of reading material you'd see in a sci-fi movie set 50 years into the future.
The app's designers made the brilliant decision of including a fast-paced song about all the elements as an opener. It's a great way to introduce viewers not only to the elements themselves, and this kind of exquisite detail is only possible with the bigger, wider screen of the iPad. What really made my jaw drop, though, was the thousands of animations (click on the screenshot above for a larger view). Launch the app, and the first thing you see is every element known to man, sitting there on a table, each one spinning around.
What makes this all possible is the iPad's A4 processor. It's remarkable that all these things can happen onscreen at the same time. That opening tableau contains more separate animated objects than a Star Wars battle sequence. It's an excellent way to harness the iPad's power for sheer entertainment value.
Touch one of the elements and you get a super-sharp enlargement (see photo above), and if you tap it again, it shows you a stereo pair of images that appear to be in 3D if you put on special glasses. Drill down deeper (see photo below) and you get an explanation of that element that's so well-written, you'll want to wander through them all.
Alongside that enthusiastic prose are objects in which the element is used, and each begins spinning around with a touch of your finger. Here's where you can really feel that power of the iPad underneath, with each animation spinning around with such ease. That kind of oomph makes using a 3D object a thrill, where the graphic isn't jumping out at you, but you can manipulate it so you can see all its sides. This is fun stuff, with each page practically inviting you to reach out and touch it.
While this is one of the most sophisticated apps we've seen on the iPad, it barely scratches the surface of what's graphically possible with the hardware within. But this one really shows off the snappy response of the iPad graphics, and proves that even with the driest material, great graphics and engaging writing can draw in even the most jaded readers. It's simply the best application we've seen on the iPad yet.
2. ABC Player (Free)
We almost didn't include this app because it was so crash-prone on launch day, but an update looks to have solved all those problems. This is clearly the way to present video on the iPad (Hulu, are you listening?), showing that ABC has a great vision for where TV on-demand is going.
The layout is uncluttered and straightforward (see graphic above), making it easy to find the latest ABC episodes (not that we're that interested in watching any of them), each presented with just a couple of commercials. The interface design aims to please, giving you what you are most likely to need up front, with the latest episodes prominently displayed, allowing you to swipe between the featured shows.
Obviously, the iPad's big screen is key here. You can watch a show in the portrait format, and there's lots more information laid out underneath (shown in the graphic above). Or, when you go horizontal, the iPad automatically rotates the screen into a no-nonsense, video centric landscape. Navigational icons at the bottom helpfully offer you a schedule of ABC programs if you're thinking of going to an old-fashioned HDTV and watching television that way. We also like the way it shows your viewing history so you can come back to an episode you might have paused earlier.
The app's main strengths have the iPad's underlying graphics muscle to thank, where each one of the shows streams with unreal smoothness, dropping no frames and playing with an HD-like sharpness that looks a lot better than this content does on an HDTV. A lot of that is probably due to the iPad's smaller screen, but if you're looking to display tack-sharp video on the iPad, this is the way to do it. Here's hoping Hulu eventually gets into the iPad derby, showing ABC how this really should be done.
3. Real Racing HD ($9.99)
Real Racing HD started its life on the iPhone, but that smaller form factor took away a lot of the excitement of racing. Now it's been drastically improved for the iPad, thanks to the device's superfast graphics, higher resolution and larger screen. The star of the show here is Real Racing's astonishing physics engine, the closest approximation of the real thing I've ever seen. Whatever juju the designers put into that ought to go into every car racing game.
The overall size and shape of the iPad is helpful here. Held in its landscape mode, it's about the same diagonal size as a racing car's steering wheel. When you hold the iPad in both hands, it really feels like you're driving. The game's new HD graphics are almost realistic (see them big by clicking on that graphic above), and when you put on a pair of good headphones and crank up the volume, the audio track is hyper-realistic, exactly approximating racing sounds, especially that low popping sound racecars make when the driver quickly lets out the clutch. It's obvious that a seasoned race fan produced this package of dazzling audio and video goodness, all coming together in a near-perfect interface with plenty of power to crank out convincing-looking graphics.
The app is packed with more features than you'd expect in a $10 game, including the ability to race against yourself or the fastest drivers in "ghost racing" mode, a huge choice of vehicles that you earn as you gain skill, and a dozen racetracks. And if you have six friends with iPads, you can all go into the Wi-Fi local multiplayer mode. The only problem I've found with Real Racing HD is to the difficulty of stopping playing it.