I’m in a bit of a quandary here. I had offered to do a story about “Tech Toys for Christmas” this month, but remembered that back in 2009 I wrote in my Observer column:
“I feel a bit uneasy about the proliferation of tech toy lists for Christmas. On the one hand, they serve a useful purpose. Technological change is so rapid that it's hard to keep up with new innovations or improved products. So if you feel you have to give Uncle Harry the latest digital whatsit for Christmas, these lists are a good place to start. On the other hand, the underlying materialistic assumptions are a bit disturbing, as is the thought of the damage to the planet created by our society's lust for the latest and greatest. Does it really matter if this year's digital cameras are 10 per cent lighter and 20 per cent smarter than last year's?”.
That didn’t stop me from writing such a list the following year (“consistency” is not my middle name). So, for 2011, do I heed the words of my 2009 self, or do as I did in 2010?
I guess I’ll compromise. No list of tech toys -- you can find a good one at the Globe and Mail, but I will give a list of apps you can buy for loved ones who have an iPad (or for yourself -- go on, you deserve it!)
Apps as gifts require no additional environmental degradation (except for the electricity needed to download the app, of course). Most of these gifts cost less than $10 and some are even less than a dollar.
But how do you “give” someone an iPad app? First, you’ll need iTunes (available for both Mac and Windows) and a free iTunes account. Use the links on this page or the searchbar in the iTunes store to go to the app you want, and then click on the down arrow beside the “Buy App” button. The first item on the dropdown list will be “Gift This App”. Click it and then fill out the details. Your gift recipient will receive an email with the good news. All they have to do is click the “Redeem” button in the email and their app will begin to download.
There are, of course, hundreds of thousands of iPad and iPad-compatible (designed for the iPhone that can run on the iPad) apps available. I’ve chosen a few that I have particularly enjoyed over the past year. For other suggestions, try appadvice.com or ipad.appstorm.net.
There are also lots of apps about Christmas. Type “Christmas” in the App Store searchbar and over 1600 results will appear (I'll discuss some of these in a future column). To get you in the mood for the holidays, try the NFB’s Advent Calendar ($0.99). Every day you get access to one of the NFB’s classic videos (so far, there’s been “The Cat Came Back”, “Asthma Tech”, and “Christopher Changes His Name”).
Without further ado, here, in no particular order, are my suggestions for an iPad Christmas.
The object of this maddeningly addictive puzzle game is to rotate clusters of lines until they form a blueprint of a complete image. According to the App Store blurb, “Each level begins with a mysterious clutter of seemingly chaotic dots and lines. Underneath all the chaos, however, lies a beautiful blueprint image waiting to be uncovered. It’s right there in front of you: Just drag your finger across the screen to rotate the figure, and all of a sudden you’ll notice that the lines start to make sense! Solve the puzzle by rotating the figure in all directions and on all planes until you hit the sweet spot. Once you’re there, the secret picture will reveal itself.” It’s addictive -- I’ve stopped writing this review four or five times in the past half hour to solve yet one more puzzle.
DK (aka Dorling Kindersley) is known for its lavishly illustrated cookbooks, travel books and how-to books. Their skillful use of white space and photography translates well to this iPad app, which includes a generous 627 recipes. You can view the recipes according to course, key ingredient or even prep time or total time -- which is very handy when you’re in a hurry. There are a lot of cookbooks available for the iPad -- some of them free -- but this one stands out and is well worth the price.
This is a very different cookbook than DK Quick Cook and not just because it’s almost 10 times as expensive (you can buy individual chapters for $2.99, or try a sample chapter on soups for free, by the way). The Professional Chef is produced by the Culinary Institute of America and includes not only recipes but video tutorials on techniques, lessons in food safety, how to buy ingredients and more. There are almost 40 videos besides the hundreds of recipes and cooking tips.
If, like me, you were required to read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in high school or university, you may be wondering why I’m recommending you give it to someone for a Christmas present -- and at $13.99 yet. Well, this app not only gives you the written text of the poem, it also includes an electrifying video performance by actress Fiona Shaw, a choice of oral readings by T.S. Eliot himself, Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Viggo Mortensen, perspectives on the poem, annotations, and a facsimile manuscript of Eliot’s original (and very different) version of The Waste Land. Listening to Shaw recite while reading along gave me a much deeper understanding of Eliot’s poem. This app shows how publishers can keep literature alive by taking advantage of the iPad’s interactive and audiovisual capabilities.
Our Choice also takes advantage of the iPad to turn a book into an interactive experience. Gore’s book about “how to solve the climate crisis” includes not only text, but videos and interactive demos that bring home the problems and possible solutions. It’s simple to navigate through the book, and the photographs and videos make a somewhat depressing story easier to get through.
Very different from Our Choice and The Waste Land, and enjoyable on a whole different level, The Monster at the End of the Book was created by the Sesame Street folks and is an engaging adventure where you and your child try to read to the end of the book while Grover (who is scared of monsters) tries to stop you. Great visuals, interactivity and voice effects. It now has a sequel, by the way, Another Monster at the End of the Book.
Moo, Baa, La, La, La! comes from Sandra Boynton, the creator of countless cute greeting cards and children’s books. Like The Monster at the End of the Book, it includes sound effects (moo, baa, meow, quack, etc.) and a choice of read-along or solo reading modes.
Thanks to its touch interface and vibrant colourful screen, the iPad has spawned many drawing and painting apps. (Apparently British artist David Hockney now paints only on the iPad.) One of the best -- and most affordable -- is Art Set. You can choose from different canvasses, different media (oils, pastels, crayons, pencils, magic markers, and more). You can erase, mix colours, dab your work with a sponge and when you’re finished, email it or post it to Facebook or Twitter.