By Nick Kolakowski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Once upon a time, the iPod was a mere music and video player. Then Steve Jobs and his minions at Apple, in their quest to conquer the computing world, introduced apps, small programs for the iPhone and iPod Touch designed for tasks and diversions from organizing your daily calendar to racing a virtual motorcycle.
Since the opening of Apple's App Store (via iTunes) in July, however, developers have released more than 500 apps, a near-dizzying array of the useful, useless and just plain ol' confounding. (Someone felt the world needed a mobile beer-bounce game? Really?) Here we highlight four applications that could make your mobile life a little easier -- or at least provide an efficient cure for boredom while on the bus.Concise English Dictionary
For those who've ever needed to settle a bar argument over the capital of the British Virgin Islands (it's Road Town), or found themselves stumped by a cocktail party companion's use of the word "rhytidoplasty," this dictionary is for you. It contains 1.6 million words' worth of definitions and sample sentences that are easy to scroll through. (Those with more cash to burn may gravitate toward the American Heritage Dictionary -- Fourth Edition application, with more than 4.2 million words, the entire text of the paper-based version of the dictionary, enlargeable graphics and pronunciations for $29.99.)
No-cost alternative: Some question Wikipedia's accuracy, but you can't deny its usefulness for a quick info fix. The free Wikipanion app allows easy navigation of the site. (A $4.99 upgrade, Wikipanion Plus, includes bookmarks and history browsing.)CraigsMobileList
Craigslist, one of the Web's most effective sites, becomes just that much more useful with a mobile application that helps you search for a car, apartment or significant other while walking around (or sprinting away from any of the above). Choose from a series of menus that list the standard Craigslist categories (housing, personals, etc.) and subcategories (sublets, missed connections), throw in some filters (bedrooms: 1), and sit back as the app presents whatever's out there for your perusal.
No-cost alternative: Use your phone's browser to navigate to http://www.craigslist.org. This is far more unwieldy -- you'll find yourself constantly zooming in and out and scrolling to navigate the regular Web page -- so the $2.99 you'll pay for the app may be worth it if you're on Craigslist a lot.iLingo
Cost: $9.99 per language
Ever find yourself in a non-English-speaking country, worried that your innocent query about the location of the nearest bathroom will, thanks to your less-than-adequate grasp of the lingua franca, come out as, "I will enjoy kidnapping your dog"? Mobile-tech company Talking Panda had just that quandary in mind when it developed phrase-book applications in 10 languages, including Italian, Russian and Mandarin. Each allows you to quickly sort through everyday English phrases in several categories (including greetings and shopping), see the translation and hear a rather pleasant voice correctly pronounce it. On top of that, "Local Lingo" phrases help you prattle on about country-specific landmarks and food.
No-cost alternative: Coolgorilla.com created a series of short Talking Phrasebooks with written and spoken translations for simple phrases. The available languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, French, German and Japanese. Its interface is more bare-bones than Talking Panda's, and it lacks locale-specific phrasing -- but then sometimes you just want to find the post office.X-Plane 9
This flight simulator gives frustrated commuters the chance to escape that stalled Metro train (at least virtually) and take to the skies in one of four small planes. Steer by tilting your iPhone or iPod Touch in the direction you want to travel; tap the two vertical bars on the screen to control flaps and throttle. Depending on how tough a challenge you want, the environment can be adjusted from a sunny, cloudless day to turbulent, visibility-zero night, though you have only a single (very mountainous) map to fly around. Developer Laminar Research obviously took time perfecting the graphics and easy-to-learn controls.
No-cost alternative: If flying's not your thing, but you still want a speed-demon simulator, the Audi A4 Driving Challenge offers the chance to whirl a high-end sedan through five courses. You tilt your device to steer and hold down the on-screen "brake" and "accelerate" pedals to keep inside the lines.Handy Readers
In keeping with a small but growing trend, a few iPhone and iPod Touch applications let you read books and documents. Navigation is generally simple, with a finger swiped across the screen "flipping" pages forward or backward and a scroll bar that can be used to skip ahead.
While electronic readers are usually free, e-books often are not. For example, the eReader application links you to eReader.com, where you can download the latest Toni Morrison or Stephen King book for prices ranging from $4.99 to full price.
Lexcycle's free app Stanza (http://www.lexcycle.com) connects you to books in the public domain, should you want to impress anyone with your in-depth knowledge of the classics. You can also export your own eBooks, PDF and Word documents to it. (Getting books onto the device requires installing a small program, Stanza Desktop, on your Mac or PC.) Just be aware that Stanza doesn't yet support eBooks protected by digital rights management -- for example, those from eReader.com.