Kids Won’t Shy Away From Geometry in ‘Land of Venn’ App

Image: Land of Venn Geometric Defense, used with permission.

I fall short in the math area of STEM. I hated geometry in school. I can’t repeat on this site the words that come to mind when the term trigonometry is used. When my daughter comes home with requests to work on her math facts, I go to the computer and look for an app that will help her. At this point, it isn’t because I’m afraid of the math, it is because I am afraid that my dislike of the 4-letter word will rub off on her, or worse, I will teach her something incorrectly and ingrain a bad example that will serve as the seed for so many math lessons to come.

This said, the newest app in my anti-math mom arsenal is called Land of Venn Geometric Defense. The characters have such interesting and unique names, I would not do it justice in explaining the purpose of the game, but their video pretty much tells you everything:

There is a lot visually happening in this app. Some of the platform bits move, but are not interactive which makes it challenging to tap and drag the correct thing at times. Sometimes there are so many things to tap and drag that a tablet is a preferred surface to make geometric shapes on. Especially if you are an adult playing this game, it’ a good idea to drag out the tablet unless you want the added challenge of a small screen and adult fingers. On a phone, another obstacle is potions (when you get them) that take up room in the bottom of the screen and cover up bad guys, taking precious time away from making your geometric shapes of villain destruction. In later levels, quadrilaterals are requested for ultimate destructive power against the juice-stealing varmints. Again, adult fingers on a phone screen aren’t the best combination for achieving a 3-star rating on a level.

straight line
They call it a straight line, I call it a line segment. What do you call it? Image: Land of Venn, used with permission.

My only observation about the geometric facts the game presents is a technicality, the shortest distance between two points is a line segment—but for kids, this is not a necessary point (pun intended).

The video above features most of the intro video to the app. It took me several times through the video on a tablet and phone to understand the thick accent in the opening scene. Once I heard it on the computer, I understood. Thankfully, I didn’t need to understand the video to play the game. It is mainly for flavor.

Minor complaints aside, this app is much easier for kids to handle with their tiny fingers, and they hear things better on average than us deaf old fogies. My kids couldn’t wait for me to finish my testing of the app so that they could give it a try.

The Adventure Time-like art is amazing. The game features crisp lines which aids in making the game playable. The areas shown in the game are beautiful. It, like other cartoons of the same style, is a little gory. Some of the attacks used on the invaders send knives out of the ground into the offending parties. It is a little graphic, but I don’t have a problem with my 5- and 9-year-old kids playing the app.

1st world levels
After the ten areas are completed, the arch at the top becomes a mini game to test the players retention of the shapes they made in the game. Image: Land of Venn, used with permission

The game has three areas to complete with ten levels in each. Each area ends with a gate that unlocks after each type of geometric shape is correctly identified. I really like this part of the game. It adds a different way of learning and adds repetition into the game without the player really noticing. The test was a nice break from the mad tapping. After unlocking all three gates, I was looking for more.

Originally, the game was only available in the App store for $4.99. It has expanded to the Amazon store and is available for $0.99. An Android version will be available after a few bugs are worked out in Beta testing (I ran through beta testing on my Samsung. After an initial download issue, the game played beautifully on the device, so I am hopeful the game will be available to the public soon). The development team is very involved with fixing any issues and has listened to feedback to produce a superior app for kids learning.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Get Even More Hands-On With the iPad With Osmo! (Giveaway!)

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Have you ever wished your kids would use the iPad camera for something other than selfies? Osmo might be just what you’re looking for. With three educational apps designed with both style and substance, Osmo is an accessory for the iPad that will transform your kids’ usual screen time into a play experience that’s actually engaging.

Osmo comes with a camera attachment, a stand for the iPad, and accessories for playing the free apps aimed at ages 6 and up. There is very little initial setup; with an iPad Mini, we did have to make a quick adjustment to the stand to hold it properly. A reflector slides on top of the iPad camera and then you’re all ready to get playing.

Tangram for Osmo is a fun twist on the tangram puzzle. The seven pieces are manipulated in front of the iPad, and reflected on the screen as pieces are moved into place. The app, like the other two Osmo apps, doesn’t come with irritating music or blaring cartoon characters, but with a simple interface and soothing sounds as pieces make the shape on the screen. With a great selection of puzzles and varying degrees of difficulty, this game isn’t just for kids—I enjoyed grabbing the pieces and taking on a puzzle myself.

My daughter is a new reader, so I was most excited for her to get her hands on Words for Osmo.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Clear, colorful photos give my daughter a hint for the word she needs to spell, and she uses the letter tiles that come with Osmo to complete the word. The “Junior Reader” setting helps her, as she is just getting started with reading and spelling, which frees her up from any frustration she might have felt trying to put the more advanced words together.

For even more bang for your buck, you can upload your own photos and words for unending play possibilities. Words for Osmo can also be played against a friend, adding a social dimension to the game.

Newton for Osmo is a one-of-a-kind game that takes your drawing and puts it on screen as soon as you put it on paper. The goal is to draw a shape that bounces a ball into the targets. You can draw any shape or thing you can think of, adding a fun, creative element to the app—and kids love seeing what they draw appear instantly on screen.

Normally I would balk at the price ($79.99) for an iPad accessory, but the Osmo is such an interactive and fresh play experience that it doesn’t feel overpriced. New apps are already in development, giving the Osmo a long shelf life with many intriguing possibilities for play.

Win your own Osmo!

This is your chance to win your own Osmo! To enter our giveaway, just log in to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win). You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us, it will still enter you in the giveaway.

A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and displayed below. You must reply to the email notification within two days in order to be considered a winner.

U.S. entries only. Contest ends January 31, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.

Build a Sensational Wall Collage With CollageMo!

Look at that collage! Image: Maryann Goldman
Look at that collage! Image: Maryann Goldman.

Recently, I had the opportunity to try out CollageMo from Lamplighter Games. CollageMo is an iOS app for your iPad or iPhone that allows you to turn your photos into gorgeous wall collages. As an advanced amateur photographer, I have thousands of photos to choose from, and I couldn’t wait to get started and see what I could create.

You can use pictures from anywhere. CollageMo is able to import pictures from the photos stored on your iPhone or iPad, as well as Facebook and Instagram. CollageMo also plans to add support to get photos from your computer. For me, the photos I wanted to use were located on SmugMug. I downloaded the photos I wanted to use from SmugMug to my computer, and then I used another app called PhotoSync to move the photos to my iPad.

Choosing which pictures you want to include is the only hard part of this whole process. I spent at least three hours deciding on a theme and picking out my best photos in that area. I decided to go with flowers, butterflies, insects, and owls… all outside stuff.  Most of my best photography is of nature.

Before you start building your collage, of course, you’ll need to decide what wall in your house will showcase your beautiful creation. I chose the wall above the love seat where my guy and I sit all the time. The available space is approximately 5 ft.wide and 3 ft. tall, so I wanted the collage to be centered in that area. I decided to use a template with nine pictures that is 3 ft. wide and 1.5 ft. tall.  The app shows you how the collage looks centered over a brown couch, and that is helpful, but I would still recommend that you use a tape measure to make sure the collage dimensions are going to fit well in the space of your choice. You don’t want to end up with something too small or too big.

The CollageMo app is easy to use. You get to pick anything from a single shot to large, elegant templates. You can drag the pictures around within a given template, crop images as necessary, and even change the template to see how your images look in several layouts. You can even create a magic collage by pointing CollageMo to a group of pictures and allowing it to fill in the template for you.

I recommend that you pick a template that you think you want to use and start adding photos to fill it out. You’ve got to start someplace, right?!? Sometimes the photo you want to use doesn’t fit well in the available square or rectangle, so you may have to move things around and play with the layout a bit. Sometimes the photos don’t work together as a group as well as you’d hoped. I went back several times to look for additional photos to try. I guarantee, though, that you’ll get excited as you see your beautiful pictures come to life in your collage.

CollageMo picture selection process. Image: Maryann Goldman
The CollageMo picture-selection process. Image: Maryann Goldman.
photo 1 (1)
The CollageMo app and my collage. Image: Maryann Goldman.

When you’re happy with your collage, go ahead and place your order. You’ll get an order summary email indicating when your collage should arrive. Mine came quickly in less than 2 weeks.

When your collage arrives, check to make sure there’s no damage. The HD Metal Panels are just gorgeous! Wow! And the way they are mounted on a foam background for shipping and hanging prevents corner damage during shipment. I was so pleased that everything arrived intact. Besides the panels themselves, you’ll receive an instruction sheet, a bag of aluminum pins, some foam spacer squares, and a paper hanging template.

What's in the box. Image: Maryann Goldman
What’s in the box. Image: Maryann Goldman.

Take your time to familiarize yourself with all of the instructions. The paper instructions will direct you to a video and additional pictures and instructions online. After spending about 10 minutes reviewing the materials and the write-up, my guy and I were ready to do the install. It took us about an hour total, so make sure to give yourself enough time for the install when there won’t be a lot of distractions.

We started by centering the paper template on the wall with some painter’s tape. You’ll need a good tape measure too.

Getting the wall ready step 1. Image: Maryann Goldman
Step 1: Getting the wall ready. Image: Maryann Goldman.

As directed, we pushed the aluminum pins into the template. You only push them in far enough to score the wall in this step. Remove the pins and paper and then insert the pins completely.

Getting the wall ready step 2. Image: Maryann Goldman
Step 2: Getting the wall ready. Image: Maryann Goldman.

Now you are ready to remove part of the foam backing off the photo panels. The idea is to leave the hanging square(s) on the panel, but to remove the outer edges. The foam is perforated, so once you start it, it comes apart pretty easily. We were extremely careful not to allow our fingers to touch the images.

Getting the pictures ready to hang. Image: Maryann Goldman
Getting the pictures ready to hang. Image: Maryann Goldman.

The instructions state that you should put foam spacers on the backs of the smaller squares. This will keep the images straight on the wall.

Small images need foam support. Image: Maryann Goldman
Small images need foam support. Image: Maryann Goldman.

In no time at all, we were ready to stand back and enjoy our new collage!

Even the cat approves. Image: Maryann Goldman
Even the cat approves. Image: Maryann Goldman.

The hanging system truly is easy enough that anyone should be able to get the collage mounted on their wall correctly. You even get that professional looking shadow around the images.

It is important to note that this collage is flexible. You can always add more pictures to the collage or swap out pictures to give your collage a new look.

I’m so pleased with my new collage that I’m already looking at building another large collage for the wall over my bed!

The CollageMo single panels start at $15.99, with collages starting at $63.99. The HD Metal panels really are impressive, and I am convinced that even the larger collages are worth the money.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Pulp Fiction in Pearl’s Peril

Image: Wooga media

I’ll admit that I’m a casual gamer. Kingdom Rush and Plants vs. Zombies on my phone have gotten considerably more play than any game on my PC, and at the moment I don’t even own a gaming console. However, I’ve never been tempted by the Facebook games that bug your friends to join you and send you things. There’s one game that’s overcome that barrier, however, and I’ll argue that it has succeeded due to its exuberantly pulp fiction plotting. Pearl’s Peril is a Facebook hidden object game (that I play on my iPad) that has held my attention for much longer than any comparable game ever has.

Pearl’s Peril has a straightforward structure: in each scene, you find the hidden objects on the list. The faster you do it, the more points you get. It gets a little complicated with game progression: the more points, the faster you progress. But to unlock new scenes you need to build buildings and decorations on your own personal island. There’s a limit to how fast you can advance, and you can speed that up considerably if you spend money. This is the only game I have sunk more than $5 into in the last several years, and I’ve been playing it for over a year now.

Image: Karen Burnham

For one thing, decorating your island is actually fun in and of itself. You unlock new buildings and decorations as you progress, and they often offer seasonal decorations for limited times. I took advantage of a Halloween special to build a mausoleum with a fiery fountain of doom in front. I’ve also got a research quad (with an observatory, aviary, library, and greenhouse) and a forest going.

But really, the thing that keeps me playing is Pearl, the heroine, and her adventures. Pearl Wallace is the daughter of privilege. In 1929 she is living in America, flying her own plane, when she gets news that her estranged father has died. They say he committed suicide after the stock market crash, but while they weren’t on good terms she’s pretty sure he was murdered. She and her journalist friend Iris fly home to her family’s island (the one you’re decorating) to investigate. Thus begin her adventures that take her all over the world and from the depths of the seas to the peaks of the Himalayas.

There’s a lot to love here: for one, Pearl is fully competent and always clothed. That seems like it shouldn’t need stating, but a while ago I was jonesing for a new hidden object game, so I downloaded a highly rated one for the iPad. In the first scene you’ve just survived a plane crash on a creepy deserted island, so of course the first thing you see is a barely clad buxom flight attendant throwing vampy looks your way. Delete. Pearl always wears her flight jacket and is ready for adventures. One scene is from her private room in the zeppelin, and even her intimate space isn’t titillating: it’s got her dressing gown, but also her diary, college graduation picture, pictures of exotic locales she’s visited—no lingerie for her! And while she does have the occasional romantic interest, they never distract her from the plot.

And what a crazy, pulp adventure plot it is! In each scene you start with some dialog between a few characters to advance the plot. Then you can find three clues. After five scenes each chapter ends with an adventure scene where Pearl has to solve some puzzle, enabling the dramatic climax that leads to the next chapter. In over a year of playing she’s been to New York, Paris, Africa, Atlantis, Russia, the Himalayas, Oklahoma, been on a submarine, cruise ships, and a zeppelin, attacked by a kraken, forged an aegis, found a pirate cove, etc, etc. Just like the old pulp serials, it can go on forever! Some clues immediately pan out and others wait in the background to resurface many chapters down the road. And amazingly, it stays true to history: every time I’ve googled some plot element that they mention, it’s turned out to be historically accurate: from the Graf Zeppelin’s record breaking flights in 1929 to the mystery of Kolchak’s gold in Russia after the Soviet Revolution.

And through it all, Pearl is a focused, competent heroine. Usually the dramatic chapter-concluding puzzles involve her doing some engineering to get something to work: smelting gold, fixing the sabotaged control system of a zeppelin, disabling some guards to steal a submarine, that sort of thing. Very MacGyver-y. Although violence happens around her, she rarely resorts to it herself. It’s amazing how much plot you can get through using just the few lines of dialog and notes on the clues she finds. And just like the pulps, each character has a very limited range of facial expressions/emotional states: I think Pearl herself only has four expressions: cheerfully competent, winsomely affectionate, frustrated/disgusted, and surprised. But you can go a long way with that in an adventure story; this is the casual gaming equivalent of a magazine serial page-turner.

There is a social aspect to the game, although I don’t really take advantage of it. The game often urges you to send energy to your friends on Facebook, even those who don’t play. These prompts are pretty easy to ignore. There’s also a “Captain’s Challenge” section where you do a timed scene and compete against friends to get a high score. I enjoy these, competing against my husband who just picked up the game recently. Everyone plays the same scene during the challenge period, so it’s fun to compare. And you can send each other resources, increasing the amount you can play. So if anyone wants to start playing, send me something in the game and I’ll happily reciprocate!

Giveaway: Win a Logitech iPad Keyboard Folio, Wireless Speaker, and Mouse

Image: Logitech

The kids are all back to school and Halloween is nearly upon us so it’s time to send out those care packages to all the college kids. Instead of sending them just tasty treats that will be gobbled up and gone before their next all nighter, Logitech is giving away a care package that they’ll use all year long.

It includes a little something of the practical and a little something that will let your college student have some fun. There’s a new mouse from their Color Collection, an Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad, and a Mobile Wireless speaker so they can turn up the tunes when it’s time to put away the books and have some fun.

  • Logitech’s 2014 Color Collection Mouse ($29.99) in eye-catching patterns and contemporary colors.
  • The Logitech Ultrathin ($99.99) that gives students an incredibly fast, fluid and comfortable typing experience for their iPad when on-the-go
  • The Logitech X300 Mobile Wireless ($69.99), a powerful wireless speaker that brings fun tunes to study hall.
Image: Logitech

The mouse is really cute and the speaker sounds fantastic, but by far, the one that I really love is the keyboard. It’s lightweight and makes using an iPad anywhere so much easier. Students can bring it to class, study groups, everywhere, and still get all their work done.

You can enter the giveaway over at my Total Fan Girl blog where a winner will be chosen at random after midnight on Monday, October 13th.

Good luck and Happy Fall!

I received these products for review purposes.

OtterBox Agility Tablet System Offers All-In-One Protection

00 Agility
Image: OtterBox

Tablets are wonderfully useful devices, but they’re also expensive so it’s important to protect them from damaging mishaps. The challenge is to find a case that does all of the things you want it to do while protecting your device. This is no small challenge, but the OtterBox Agility System combines multiple pieces that function together to keep your tablet protected while improving its functionality.

The OtterBox Agility System is available for multiple tablets including the iPad 2/3/4 and Air, iPad Mini with retina display, Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 3. I tested the system on our iPad 3 so all information and pricing is based on that system. Let’s start with why I keep calling it a system and not simply a case.

There are multiple pieces to the OtterBox Agility System, and they all work off of the Agility Shell ($39.95) which is the foundation for the system. Think of this as the kind of sturdy case you likely already associate with OtterBox. It protects your device soundly by putting a hard, thick, plastic shell around the tablet. It has a lip that extends above the surface, which is wonderful since this means when it gets put down roughly on its face, the screen won’t scratch.

Image: OtterBox

That last bit doesn’t sound like a big deal, but that’s a make or break feature as far as I’m concerned. Don’t believe me? Just wait until your child decides to put your tablet face down on a driveway or bricks or cement. Better yet, wait until you drop it and it bounces onto the driveway before landing face down. Yeah, that little raised edge is a lifesaver.

The plus side to this case is that it’s solid and protects well, but the drawback is that it’s on the heavy side. If lightweight protection is at the top of your list, then this could be an issue. The weight is due partly to how protective it is, making it a case that feels like it will genuinely give your tablet a fighting chance, and partly to the fact that this is the foundation to a larger, interlocking system.

That system all revolves around a magnet built into the back of the Agility Shell. This is what connects the shell to the other system components and is the heart of what makes the whole system so darn good.

02 Agility
Image: OtterBox

You could just stay with the Agility Shell, but you can add three different styles of folios that add extra protection, covering the touchscreen and functioning as stands for easier use. The base folio is simply the Agility Folio ($49.95) which is a very lightweight folio with a suede-like finish and two stand positions. It attaches to the magnet on the back of the shell and folds around to protect the touchscreen.

The idea of having just a magnet attaching the folio to the shell might be a little disconcerting, but this magnet means business. I opened the folio, let my iPad dangle from the end of it, and even shook it while it was hanging there and it didn’t come apart. Of course, I’m not recommending you do this every day, but it does add to peace of mind that the folio and shell aren’t going to come apart on a whim.

The next folio up is the Agility Portfolio ($69.95) which has a more professional leather finish and folds completely around the tablet. It looks snazzier and has a multi-position stand and is the one you’d likely want if you’re at a client site and want to make a bit of an impression.

Although this one looks nicer and offers some extra protection and extra stand positions, I preferred the basic Agility Folio. It did the job while still being lightweight and easily slipped into luggage pockets during a summer filled with a lot of travel. The Agility Portfolio likely won’t see as much use, although those who find themselves using their tablets frequently during business situations may prefer its more professional look.

The third folio is the Agility Deluxe Folio (Coming Soon) which I did not test, but is worth mentioning since it is a part of the system. It adds on the other two cases by providing storage for things like headphones, a keyboard, and whatever other random bits you need when you’re on the go.

08 Agility
Image: OtterBox

The last piece of the system is mounting devices. There’s the Agility Wall Mount ($29.95) which you adhere permanently to a surface and allows you to snap your tablet in place, again with the built-in magnet. Anyplace you want to have easy access to your tablet is an ideal spot for this wall mount. Put it in the kitchen to have your tablet at the ready for recipes, or even a bathroom mirror or office wall.

For less permanent mounting, there’s the Agility Dock ($49.95) and Agility Power Dock ($99.95). I did not test the Power Dock, which powers both your tablet and two other devices at the same time. It looks to be very similar to the Agility Dock, just with the addition of charging. I did test the Agility Dock and this is my preferred method of the various mounting and docking systems.

The magnet locks in securely so you don’t have any fear of it falling off of the dock, and the dock can be adjusted to just the right angle. It’s also portable, so you don’t have to worry about it being stuck to the wall in the kitchen when you need it on your workbench in the garage. Just pick it up, and move it wherever you go.

09 Agility
Image: OtterBox

The OtterBox Agility System offers a comprehensive system, not just a case, for protection of your tablet. You get a sturdy case, a choice of folios to protect your screen, and a variety of docking and mounting systems to make using your tablet a breeze and not break the bank in the process.

I received these products for review purposes.

Tiny Hands Apps Puts the Joy of Learning in Toddlers’ Hands

Image: Tiny HandsAs the mother of two kids in a very tech-connected geek household, apps are often on our minds. Which is why I’m so excited to share Tiny Hands Apps, our sponsor, with you.

Our daughter, the youngest, is only two. And while she’s fascinated with the iPad and certainly wants to use it like her brother does, there’s not much out there that caters to her. Generally speaking, it’s too complicated for her—and to be honest, I don’t just want to throw her the iPad to keep her busy when it’s not something that’s helpful for her.

That’s where Tiny Hands Apps comes in. Tiny Hands Apps are designed with toddlers in mind, from top to bottom. They’re educational and fun, and go beyond being just apps—really, they’re developmental apps. Everything is designed with a great deal of thought, not just a bunch of bright colors and sounds. In fact, Tiny Hands Apps are put together with certified child psychologists and produced in such a way to be exciting and interesting but never compromising on the content.

Even better? There’s no ads. No pop ups. No network access. Your littlest curious kiddos are free from the advertising crush that we so often see in games. It’s a gateway to learning without interruption.

Image: Tiny HandsA great example is Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House. Your toddler sees a friendly raccoon character, and a story to go along. But you’ll know that it’s far beyond that. Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House includes sorting, classifying, hand-eye coordination, concentration, vocabulary… and so on.Image: Tiny Hands

But that’s just the beginning. The world of Tiny Hands Apps is full of bright and colorful fun, learning about the world and all that’s in it.

We all know that it’s almost impossible to avoid technology—and we certainly never would want to. But we always want to make sure that we’re delivering the best quality to our children, both appropriate and exceptional. If you have a toddler who’s ready, we can’t think of a better place to start than Tiny Hands Apps

You can see the full lineup of Tiny Hands apps at the iTunes store, and follow them on Facebook, too.

This post is sponsored by Tiny Hands Apps.

Tracking Pixel

Late to the Game: Carcassonne

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

One of four games described by Tabletop host Wil Wheaton as the “pillars of classic European-style board games,” Carcassonne is a modern classic released back in 2000. The aim of the game is to collect points while building towns, monasteries, roads, and farms in the French countryside. It is a simple game to introduce with a wide and varied range of available expansions, the first of which (“The River”) is generally packaged with the base game. Carcassonne is now also available as an app for iOS and Android, so I took a look at both to compare their pros and cons.

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

The App Game

1. For those new to the game, a tutorial mode teaches you how to play. Newbies might also benefit from the ability to switch off fields/farming (Carcassonne‘s most complex scoring mechanic) at least for their first few games.

2. The app keeps track of the remaining tiles. This not only means that you get a handy countdown in the corner that lets you know just how many tiles are left in the virtual stack, but it also introduces another useful feature. Because the game knows exactly which tiles are remaining in the stack, when you place your current tile on the table, it automatically looks at the layout. If you have created a space in which no remaining tile can possibly be played, an X is scratched into the table surface. This happens before you commit to laying down your tile, so you can see if, for example, placing that tile will mean a city can never be completed and choose to place it elsewhere. If you’d rather play without this feature, it can be switched off.

3. The app also shows you all of your options for placing a tile by shading each available location. This makes it much faster to check your possibilities on a large map, rather than spending time figuring out where you can play on this turn.

4. When placing tiles, the app shows you the different options you have for placing meeples. This stops farmers accidentally being placed in occupied fields where boundaries are difficult to follow.

5. One of the biggest headaches of Carcassonne comes at the very end of the game, when farmers are being counted. Working out the boundaries of each farm can be very time-consuming, depending on the layout of the final “board.” The app automatically calculates the value of each farm, including splitting points when multiple farmers share fields.

6. The app has several modes to play. You can choose to play against computer opponents who vary in difficulty and tactics, or you can go online and play against friends or complete strangers. There’s always someone to play against, even if it’s only a bot.

7. The app also introduces a brand-new game-play mode: Solitaire. Unlike traditional Carcassonne, the Solitaire variant asks you to build a settlement on a budget of 1,000 victory points. The settlement must have cities and roads in every size, from two to six tiles, built in consecutive order. Placing tiles costs points based on their location.

8. One of the biggest bonuses to the app is its price. The basic game costs $9.99/£6.99, with expansions ranging from $0.99/69p to  $1.99/£1.49. Meanwhile, the physical base game stands at $25/£20, with expansions costing around $15/£13 each.

1. By the end of the game, Carcassonne can become a sprawling mass of tiles. Because of the limited screen size (and shape), this means it’s difficult to see the whole “board” at once, which can lead to either a lot of scrolling or reducing the tiles down to microscopic size. This is especially true when playing on an iPhone or iTouch.

2. There are significantly fewer expansions available than for the board game. However, the numbers are rapidly increasing (a new expansion—“The Phantom”—was launched just a few days ago), meaning this could soon become a moot point.

Carcassonne Board Game © Z-Man Games
Carcassonne board game © Z-Man Games

The Tabletop/Board Game

1. The board game generally comes with “The River” expansion as part of the standard base game (it is a paid expansion on the app), meaning instant variety is included for your first purchase.

2. The range of expansions is much wider: bridges, princesses and dragons, inns, abbeys, traders, and more are all available to turn your Carcassonne from a small settlement to a mighty civilization.

3. Playing on a tabletop makes it much easier to see entire board at once.

4. The big draw of a physical game is the ability to play with a group of friends; it’s kind of what the whole resurgence of tabletop gaming is about, after all. Taking the game along to play with friends and family or to public gaming days allows you to connect with people in a way an app never could.

1. The biggest issue with the tabletop game is simply its cost. At more than double the cost of the app for the base game and with some expansions costing over seven times more in physical form than as in-app purchases, it is difficult to justify the additional cost—especially for those of us on a budget. There is also the issue of storage, a pain known well to those of us with large board game collections and small houses.

2. As much as the nature of a tabletop game lends itself to community and playing with others, for those of us who live apart from friends and family, this can be a drawback, meaning we can only play on rare occasions.


As usual, there is no “best” option because different options will suit different people best. With a much cheaper price tag, a flexible range of options to change your game-play depending on how you want to play, and simplified game-play, the app is a robust addition to your app library.  Indeed Carcassonne is a rare case where the benefits of the app vastly outnumber those of the physical game. However, there will be many cases where the physical game is a better option, especially for those who play regularly in groups. Hopefully, this will help you decide which option is best for you.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes. 

Time for Kids Family Edition App for Android and iPad

Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

I was invited to check out an issue of Time for Kids Family Edition on the iPad in March with my 9- and 11-year-old sons. With a free sample download on iTunes, anyone has a chance to see a free sample issue and see for themselves the timely articles, vivid photography, and interactive special features for themselves. We reviewed the iPad version, but you can also download individual issues and subscribe on Android devices through the Google Play store. I did not see an opportunity to download a sample issue via Google Play.

My oldest son reads a sample issue of Time for Kids on our iPad. He enjoyed the photography and we discussed the situation in the Ukraine. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My oldest son reads an article about, Sky, the winner of the Westminster Dog Show on the Time for Kids app on our iPad. He enjoyed the photography and we discussed the situation in the Ukraine. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Time magazine doesn’t need an introduction. The classic weekly news magazine has been around for over 90 years, and their digital version has been evolving with plenty of interactive features. In 1998 Time for Kids was launched in print version to help elementary-school-aged kids keep in tune with current events. These magazines are made readily available to teachers, and the articles are written in concert with Common Core education standards.

The digital issue cover parallels the print edition. I was hoping I could tap on one of the teaser titles on this cover and get to the story, but that wasn't possible. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
The digital issue cover parallels the print edition. I was hoping I could tap on one of the teaser titles on this cover and get to the story, but that wasn’t possible. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

As a child of the print magazine era, I’m still trying to wrap my head around using our iPad or Android tablets as our primary source for magazines. I still like to enjoy my print versions, even though every magazine I subscribe to offers iPad versions for our convenience.

However, for my sons, they wouldn’t have it any other way. My oldest son particularly enjoyed the sample issue; he read the entire thing cover-to-cover and it even prompted some discussions about the conflict in the Ukraine, which was the topic of one of the articles.

The “Family Edition” is separate from the other Time for Kids editions, which are available in formats for Grades K-1, 2, 3-4, and 5-6. The articles are tailored to each grade level and accommodate Common Core standards of reading and comprehension for each of those grade ranges. The Family Edition is a compilation of articles from each of the month’s four kids’ issues. If you have a younger, newer reader, some of the articles might be more advanced, but that’s a perfect opportunity for parents to sit with the kids and go over it together.

Conversely, a 5th grader might roll his/her eyes at the photos of baby monkeys in the Congo.

Like other digital magazines, browsing through the pages of Time for Kids was pretty straightforward. You swipe left and right to turn pages, swipe up and down to scroll through articles, and you will have plenty of opportunities to tap for bonus content, such as videos, sidebars, and “editor’s picks.” My sons had no problems doing any of this.

I wish the interface was available in landscape orientation. Also, in the sample issue we downloaded, the cover always starts out covered in snow and a hand brushes the snow away, revealing the cover. Each and every time we go back to the cover page, such as if we leave the app momentarily and then return, the hand brushing the snow returns, which takes about 10 seconds before you can do anything past the cover page.

If you are looking for a way to keep your kids informed on current events, a Time for Kids Family Edition subscription would make a great gift for your favorite elementary-school-aged child and his/her family. Download the free app through which you add on individual issues or annual subscriptions via the iTunes App Store for iOS devices or the Google Play store for Android/Kindle devices. Subscriptions are $1.99 per issue for a month-to-month subscription, $19.99 for a 12-month annual subscription, or $3.99 for a single issue with no subscription. New issues come out the first week of each month.

Review: If I Ran the Rainforest Ebook

If I Ran the Rainforest © Oceanhouse Media
If I Ran the Rainforest © Oceanhouse Media

At four years old, my son is starting to develop a strong interest in the wider world around him. He is particularly interested in geography and learning about the different kinds of places there are around the world. The Cat in the Hat e-book series is a great fit for curious young children and the latest edition to the library teaches children all about rainforests.

If I Ran the Rainforest sees the Cat taking Sally and her brother Dick on a journey to a rainforest to learn more about them. What I really love about this book is that whilst keeping the tone simple and sticking to the classic Seuss rhyming style, the book doesn’t dumb down the facts. Inside, children will learn about:

  • The four kinds of rainforests, what they are called, and how they differ from one another
  • The four floors of the rainforest and the creatures who live in each one
  • The basics of transpiration
  • Animals and plants of the rainforest including information about their lifestyles and diets
  • The humans who live in the rainforest and how they survive there
  • How the floors of the rainforest form an ecosystem
  • A very brief discussion on the destruction of rainforests
Thing 1 and Thing 2 teach us about transpiration © Oceanhouse Media
Thing 1 and Thing 2 teach us about transpiration © Oceanhouse Media

There was enough information contained in the story that I was able to learn some new facts too, such as the name of the plants that grow on trees high in the rainforest canopy. Potentially tricky new words like these are written and sounded out clearly; these plants are shown as “e-pi-phytes” and the tallest trees in the rainforest written down as “e-mer-gents.”

The app has the option to switch between “read to me” and “read it myself” options so it can progress with your child as they get better at reading alone. You can also choose to record your own narrations, perfect for parents who are frequently away and unable to read bedtime stories themselves, or for other relatives who are not around as often as they’d like. Tapping on objects causes the word to be spoken aloud and words in bold, e.g., equator, can be tapped to see a simple definition.

This is another great release from The Cat in The Hat’s Learning Library and one that will be of use to children at a variety of levels from curious toddlers to grade-schoolers needing a basic introduction to the subject for homework projects. It makes learning fun and that’s one of the best things we can ever hope to do.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Toca Boca: Mayhem and Makeovers

Not too long ago, I organized all of the icons on my iPhone and realized that I have a menu page that consists entirely of Toca Boca apps. This prolific developer makes so many apps that captivate both my 3-year-old and my 8-year-old (not an easy age span to bridge). Two recent additions to their app catalog are no different, Toca Cars and Toca Hair Salon Me.

Toca Cars lets you cause all kinds of motor mayhem in an adorable cardboard town. First, you choose whether you want to be a boy driver or a girl driver, but they’re both pretty punk rock so they’re both fun to play. Then, you choose whether you want to drive on an existing course or create your own. The preexisting course and the course that you can create are made up of roads (naturally), ramps, buildings, streetlights and signs, and puddles of paint.

Screenshot of the awesome paint puddle action.

This is not the app for you if your kid likes everything neat and orderly. Your car follows your finger, and unless you’re taking it super slow, you’re going to cause some damage to your adorable town, crashing through signs and driving through puddles. Actually, the puddles are the favorite part for both me and my daughter because you can leave colorful track marks in your wake. It’s also fun to jump the ramps and crash into things when you land. It’s a little tricky to line up your car right, but super satisfying when you do. Toca Cars might have a narrower appeal than some of their other apps, but for kids who like their car play with just the right amount of destruction, this is perfect.

I believe my kids play the various iterations of Toca Hair Salon more than anything else given the sheer volume of colorful character makeover head-shots that appear in my photo album. My daughter in particular loves styling the hair of the different characters, trying out all sorts of crazy colors and looks. Now, with Toca Hair Salon Me, she can try it on herself. It would be cool with a static picture, but the app goes the extra mile. After you take or upload a photo, the app asks you to mark the location of the eyes and mouth. Why? So it can animate you. My daughter giggled as she saw her own face react to the different hairstyles she was trying out.

My daughter’s avatar smiles at her two-toned hair.

Like the other Hair Salon apps, you can grow the hair longer and cut it shorter in a variety of ways. You can wash it, blow it dry, straighten it, and curl it. There’s also a rainbow array of hair dye colors. I happen to have pink hair at the moment, so my daughter enjoys trying out different colors for me to try. It’s like Cher in Clueless taking Polaroids of her different looks. I may well take one of the headshots from this app to my hairdresser on my next visit.

Toca Hair Salon Me is worth picking up even if you have one of the other Hair Salon apps. It’s so delightful for kids to immerse themselves in the experience. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go try out Toca Labs with the kids based on GeekMom Kelly’s review.

GeekMom received a review copy of Toca Cars

Review: Shape the Village

Shape the Village1
Photo: WiseKids

Shape the Village is a fun new app designed for toddlers. Released by WiseKids, it is a bright and engaging way of introducing and reinforcing shapes for very young children. It’s amazing what variety can be created by combining squares, circles, and triangles of different sizes and colors.

The app (available for both iPhone and iPad) has a number of different activities to play around with in the “village.” There are two screens worth, one on land and one more water-based. You can make different kinds of fish, cover a cookie with chocolate icing, or clean the window of a spaceship to see the astronaut inside. It has lots of potential for repeat play, and a pleasant soundtrack. A lot of the games will use different shapes when you open them multiple times, so the spaceship has a round window (and a round astronaut) one time, and a triangular window (and a triangle astronaut) the next. My son (a 26 month old) already knows the basic shapes, but found the app engaging and returns to it often.

photo (2)
Geekling and GeekDad with Shape the Village on iPad. Photo: Karen Burnham

One nice thing is that the game makes it easy to succeed. In different tracing games, the child doesn’t have to match the lines exactly—whenever their erratic lines cross the pattern, color shows up. There’s also a nice variety, between tracing games, matching shapes, making patterns, and filling in shapes. Several games involve animals, such as a cute little caterpillar made of squares that will eat different shapes out of a leaf. Whenever the child completes a game successfully, they get some “ta-da!” music, applause, and a voice says the name of the shape on the screen.

I do have a few minor complaints:

At first, it took quite a bit of random tapping around before we figured out where the games were, what parts were interactive, and which were just background. This is mitigated by having the background elements respond a little to being poked (like the train that will make a “choo-choo” sound when tapped, but otherwise doesn’t open any game). Of course, for small children, randomly exploring a new app is no hardship, and after the first day my son had figured out his favorite activities. Similarly, some of the individual activities required some random poking before either of us could figure out how to play them. But random tapping around always worked eventually; we were never stranded.

Shape the Village3
Photo: WiseKids

That said, my son definitely enjoys Shape the Village on both the iPhone and iPad. We’ve had it for a week, and he returns to it often. It’s gone into the current set of favorites. I like the fact that it’s so interactive and that the games cycle through the shapes instead of being exactly the same each time. And after a week, there’s still more for him to explore; he hasn’t come close to finding every game (there are 16 total). He hasn’t explored the water screen as much yet, so there’s a lot more there. Although my son already knows his shapes, it’s good reinforcement and he’s not at all bored by the games. I think that $2.99 is a reasonable price for an app that engages a toddler so well.

This is one of four apps that WiseKids is launching this week. The others are interactive story-telling apps that are aimed at somewhat older children. They are:

Sleeping Beauty
Jack and the Beanstalk

GeekMom received a free copy of this app for review purposes.

Review: Wee Rockets on the iPad and iPod Touch

Photo: Karen Burnham

Our son is 26 months old and a complete native when it comes to touch screen use. We finally broke down and got him his own iPod Touch over the summer so that we could liberate our phones from his cheerfully grasping hands. This has the bonus effect that everything on it (and on an old original iPad) is locked down, in-app purchases disabled, and every app on it is age appropriate. So now the challenge is keeping it up to date with apps that are interesting to him as he masters old ones. Two perennial favorites are Endless Alphabet and BeBop Blox by Originator.

But the latest mega-hit in our household is Wee Rockets by Wee Taps.

Photo: Wee Taps

This is a super simple game with no text or dialog. In the first screen you see an astronaut (human or alien), dreaming of a spaceship. Then you get the spaceship design screen seen in the screenshot to the right. There are five elements in each spaceship (rocket nozzle, fuselage, port hole, nose cone, and astronaut), and four options for each that the child can choose. This can lead to some awesome looking rockets! Then there’s a liftoff screen where the child pushes the button followed by a visual countdown and rocket launch.

There’s a simple space game where the rocket flies through an asteroid field. The object is to avoid the rocks and pick up little alien critters and planets, but there’s no penalty for hitting the rocks and my son loves the “boom” sounds the asteroids make when the rocket hits them, so at the moment he steers for the rocks enthusiastically. When the spaceship crosses the finish line, you get some “Tada!” music and a screen of the passenger alien celebrating all the alien critters and planets that were collected. Then it starts all over.

It’s so simple that I figured my son would get bored with it easily, but it’s been his favorite for over a week. Each screen has different music, and the design screen has guitar music that sounds a bit like the Seinfeld opening. I’ve been hearing it so much that I feel like I’ll never forget it—luckily, I don’t find it annoying. He enjoys it on both the iPad big screen and on the Touch’s small screen.

It is super easy to play, needing almost no parental intervention to get started. And a full round of play is short enough that it’s easy to wait for him to finish before I need him to do something like eat dinner or get dressed. I’m hoping that this will be a good introduction to some of the more sophisticated build-and-design apps that I’m eying for when he gets older. I can’t wait to play watch him play them!

There is also a Wee Subs app from the same developer, and I’m saving that one for when he gets bored with this one. It looks like that might be awhile! All in all I feel like Wee Rockets was $1.99 well spent.

ComiXology: The Changing Face of Comic Book Readers

Screenshot of the ComiXology app. Take note of the “New to Comics?” section.

comixology-300x277Yesterday I peeked behind the digital curtain at ComiXology, the cloud-based multiplatform digital comics reader, as co-founder and CEO David Steinberger talked through what’s new for ComiXology, what’s been working well according to a recent survey of over 16,000 readers.

ComiXology just passed the milestone of 200,000,000 downloaded comics. A good handful of those have been downloads in our household. As someone relatively new to comics, ComiXology is my favorite way to read them. I like the shopping experience of having comic book discovery at my fingertips, and the guided view technology used make comics so beautifully cinematic. I’ve been pleased as well with their nice selection of independent and kids’ comics.

It turns out, I’m part of the changing face of comic book readership. In their survey of readers, they found that the core customer of ComiXology is who you might expect:

  • Male
  • Age 27-36
  • Has been reading print comics for a long time

But a new customer is emerging:

  • Female
  • Age 17-26
  • Newer to comics, with many reading comics for the first time digitally

Of buyers new to ComiXology in the last three months, 20% are women. That’s up from less than 5% when they started the app, and it’s a number that Steinberger says is changing rapidly. Comic book publishers, take note. The survey also found that of the readers who were reading their first comic digitally, many went on to buy comics in print. Again, comic book publishers, take note.

I suspect that the ComiXology Submit program is helping, and will continue to help, cultivate new comics readers. In fact, since its launch, Submit has become a top 20 publisher by revenue. Content creators can deliver their independent comics to ComiXology, and if it’s professionally-created, it will likely get approved. (Unless you use Comic Sans. Be prepared to face certain rejection.) Browsing through the independent comics, you’ll see a huge range of voices and styles represented, including many underrepresented voices in mainstream comics. It’s great for creators. Steinberger said he sees much more risk-taking here than in mainstream comics. And these creators can go from having their comics in a few shops to having an international marketplace to find their readers.

Selections from the Guided View Native content, and new offerings from DC.

Here’s a handful of things I learned about ComiXology:

*  The average ComiXology customer spends about $100/year. A quarter of readers spend over $400/year. A single reader has spent $63,000 and counting. Is it you?

*  There’s a line of comics that are Guided View Native (GVN). These comics take deeper advantage of the deeper platform with cool effects on lighting, focus, etc. Motorcycle Samurai is a good example worth checking out.

*  Your local comic book shop can have a digital storefront that allows you to still give your business to the small guy while buying digitally. Stores can even run deals and keep pull lists for their customers.

Infographic from ComiXology’s reader survey

Naturally, ComiXology also has some launches and deals to align with New York Comic Con, too:

*  There’s a new Android Holo release with a refreshed design. HD content will now be offered for the first time on Android.
*  Apps have a new Fit to Width function that helps the reading of portrait pages in landscape view.
*  DC graphic novels and collections are now available.
*  If you’ve ever thought about reading The Walking Dead, now’s the time. Issues #1-114 are on sale for $99.99, or $0.99 each.
*  Ape Entertainment is coming to ComiXology, with titles like Sesame Street, Kung Fu Panda, and game-based comics like Cut the Rope. Hurrah for more kids’ comics!

If you’re at New York Comic Con this weekend, definitely check out all that’s new with ComiXology. And have a look around and all of the different types of comic book readers you see.

Butterfingers! Part Two: Road Testing iPad Covers

Earlier this summer I wrote about some of my favorite covers for the iPhone – now it’s time to give the iPad some love. (No iPads were harmed in the making of this post… though I did drop one by accident once or twice…)

Let’s kick things off with:

The iGuy by Speck

Courtesy: Speck

Design-wise, I adore this cover. It’s clever and hilarious – I can’t tell you how many people stop us and ask about it when they see it. Have you ever handed your child your iPad (you don’t have to admit it out loud, it’s totally fine, you’re safe here…) and spent the entire time on edge about them dropping it? If you want full toddler protection – this is the cover for you. It’s durable, soft, and sproingy. (Yes, I think that’s the appropriate word to use here.) The arms serve as comfortable handles your child will have no problem gripping and hanging on to. Remember above where I said I may have dropped an iPad here or there – yeah – this would thankfully be the one that I dropped. And it bounced on one of the arms, and then bounced on the face of the iPad (cue me sucking in my breath and cringing in that way one does when a gadget drops) and it was fine.  Boooiiinnnggg!

This is a great cover if you’ve upgraded your iPad and given your kids the old one as “theirs.” It is not a cover you can pop in your purse and it takes up a lot of room in a backpack, so if you’re traveling on a plane, this may not be the right case for you or your child.

As an aside – I’d like to mention that even though the iGuy is designed to allow you to take pictures with later versions of the iPad, we shoved an original iPad in that sucker and it worked fine.

FitFolio by Speck

 Courtesy: Speck

Speck has a line of super stylish iPad covers in their FitFolio line that I road tested while I was working in an office for a month or so. I love the designs they offer – my favorite being the grey retro boom box one. This cover is extremely light and tight fitting, with a magnet in the cover to put your iPad to sleep and gently wake it up when you need it.

I loved how easy it was to throw this in my purse or tote – I felt confident that my iPad was fully protected, and asleep. My one issue with this cover is standing the iPad when you fold it over – often the iPad would slip out of the notch in the cover and slam down. It happened so often in meetings that I had to stop trying to prop the cover up in a standing position, and resort to folding the case in a triangle underneath.

Speck Wanderfolio

 Courtesy: Speck

I was intrigued by the idea of the Wanderfolio—aka iPad case as wallet—idea because I dream about paring down my life, but it never seems to happen. I wrote about how much I loved the Speck wallet case for the iPhone – so this seemed like the logical thing to try for the iPad.

When I get a new purse, I start out by streamlining all the things I carry, but alas, eventually, I end up with 3 random colored crayons, a stick and a rock from the park, a 2-month-old Trader Joe’s receipt, 14 lip glosses that I will never remember to use, a discount card to the Koreatown Galleria, and a parking ticket somehow littering the bottom of my bag. (Full disclosure – I just now looked in my purse and these are all things I actually found in there. RELATED: I need to clean out my purse. ALSO RELATED: I should pay that parking ticket. SOMEWHAT RELATED BUT VERY IMPORTANT: Always remember to put change in the parking meter.)

The Wanderfolio keeps you honest – it’s not that easy to overstuff it, though you know I tried. The design is slim with and without things in the pockets of the generous wallet area. Inside you’ll find two large pockets, two medium pockets, and two small pockets in a section of the case that snaps shut to keep everything secure.

I had some kind of mental block using this case as a combined wallet and iPad cover. Maybe it’s because I am so in love with the ease of my wallet iPhone cover, which feels less cumbersome to me. But let’s face it – carrying around your iPad is cumbersome. You just get used to it. I found myself using this case with the wallet part empty because the lining inside is EXCELLENT for propping up the iPad. No slippage. No embarrassing WHAPS! during important meetings, with me sheepishly re-propping up my iPad. To me, that’s a huge selling point for this one.

But you still, as it turns out, have to carry a purse, since, uh… where am I supposed to put my keys?

Griffin Elan Folio – Cabana


So you’re looking for a cover with some verve? Want something feminine and neutral all at the same time? This cover is quite durable with a classic look.

This cover is not my style at all. No, really! Remember that I often have rocks, sticks and rogue crayons in my purse. But it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the color and clean lines of the design. This is the kind of cover that some amazing art director would put in a photo shoot for a magazine as set dressing – like for an article titled “She Works Hard For The Money!” or “Daily Beauty: Casual Friday!” Of course there would be a model in a super stylish outfit awkwardly clutching a facing-out-baby while she dials a phone with a pencil in her other hand. And on her desk is an iPad propped up with this very cover on it. The light streams in from the window. And that office looks so stylish, so breezy and clean that your heart fills up with hope that your life can feel this good if only you buy this cover.

Xdoria Smartstyle


If you’re just looking for something simple, no bells, no whistles, no gimmicks or bonuses, then this is a great cover for you. This is a no frills, good, solid iPad cover. The craziest it gets is a small embellishment on the cover, separating it from the Apple store magnetic covers; a quite nice little  design detail. This cover was the lightest of the bunch, and a great all-purpose, don’t notice me and my iPad kind of cover. It does what it’s asked to do – protects the iPad, wakes it up and puts it to sleep with a magnetic cover, and doesn’t add bulk. You can’t go wrong.

The Props Power Case by Digital Treasures

Props Power Case 1

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I fall into bed at night, exhausted, then wake up in the morning, pull out my iPad and realize I’ve forgotten to charge it. Hello 5% battery life! This would be no big deal if I could just, you know, plug it in and leave it to charge up as I went about my business. Unfortunately, I often use my iPad for work, and bring it everywhere I go. So I don’t have that luxury.

Enter the Props Power Case.  I can’t tell you how many times this 12,000 mAh battery came in handy as I road tested this case. It’s surprisingly light for something that packs such a power wallop! I really loved this case the best of all and am still using it as my regular every day accessory. This is by no means a light load– when you pop this in your purse, you really FEEL the weight. But knowing that I have back up battery power whenever I need it is worth it – it suits my work on the go lifestyle.  And it’s especially important to me to have while traveling.

Hope this helps you narrow things down a bit. It’s hard to believe there’s an entire industry built around personalizing our i-devices. I still marvel at things like this, because I still have all of my LPs, and remember when the 8-track would click off in the middle of the song so it could switch tracks.

Product Review: Chef Sleeve iOS Kitchen Products

The Chef Sleeve Cutting Board with iPad Stand with an iPad Protective Sleeve is an easy, functional way to use your iPad as your cookbook. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Chef Sleeve cutting board with iPad stand and iPad Protective Sleeve are easy, functional ways to use your iPad as a cookbook. Now I don’t have to fear getting chopping onions all over my iPad when I’m preparing red lentil dahl. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Do you use your iPad or other tablet device in the kitchen? I do…sometimes. I don’t care for printing out internet recipes and I figured the iPad was the way to make online recipes easy! I even have a bookmark on my Safari app filled with my favorite internet recipes. But this past Christmas, I had more than one food issue, from flour to splattered cooking oil.

I had the opportunity to review three of Chef Sleeve’s products: the cutting board with iPad stand, a set of iPad 2 protective sleeves, and the dishwasher safe iPad stand. All of these products are made in the U.S.A. If you’ve ever been nervous about taking your iPad into the kitchen with you, these products might be able to make a difference for you. Read on for my impressions.

Chef Sleeve Cutting Board with iPad Stand

The Chef Sleeve cutting board with iPad stand was manufactured in partnership with Epicurean, a company that features chef-quality sustainable wood fiber cooking supplies: cutting boards, utensils, and rolling pins. But the Chef Sleeve version features a slot cut into the top for your iPad.

This is a large cutting board: 18″ x 13.5″. This is the largest cutting board I’ve ever used. It features a groove cut around the edge to catch juices, and the surface is soft enough to not be too brutal on knives. The board is dishwasher safe and I sent it through several cycles and it did just fine. In addition, the board is heat resistant up to 350F, so feel free to put a hot-from-the-oven roast right on top of it.

Because this is a softer board—better for knives—expect to see several knife marks on the surface over time.

The wood fiber board is visually appealing and functional too! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Chef Sleeve iPad Protective Sleeves

The Chef Sleeve protective sleeves come custom-sized for whichever iOS you require; they are also available for Kindles. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I received a box of 25 transparent iPad covers. They’re easy to use: there’s a peel-off strip to uncover the adhesive and you simply drop in the iPad and seal it up.

The touch-screen works perfectly well under the clear plastic. I was even able to remove the iPad from the sleeve and replace the peel-off strip; I could save the cover for another time.

While I had to remove my iPad from the cover that I ordinarily use to insert it into the sleeve, the company claims that the iPad sleeves are compatible with the Apple Smart Covers.

Chef Sleeve iPad covers are 100% recyclable. Double bonus word score.

Dishwasher Safe iPad Stand

The iPad stand is an effective way to keep your iPad—or other tablets—handy in the kitchen. The stand is made of the same wood fiber resin as the cutting board, so it has the same heat resistance and NSF-certified sanitation standards as the cutting board.

The stand has two grooves cut into it. One groove is wider than the other. This allows for two viewing angles…one being more sloped than the other. There’s also a semicircle cut into the groove that allows for easy access to the home button.

A close up of the iPad stand with two grooves for your choice of viewing angle. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
A close up of the iPad stand with two grooves for your choice of viewing angle. In this picture, the stand is being used with an iPad inside a protective sleeve. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Even though this apparatus is being marketed as an “iPad stand”, I decided to try it out with the two other tablets in my house: a Kindle Fire and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

The Samsung—like the iPad, without any cover—fit perfectly. On the other hand, the Kindle Fire only worked in the fatter of the two grooves.

The Samsung Galaxy Note tablet works perfectly well with the Chef Sleeve "iPad Stand". Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Samsung Galaxy Note tablet works perfectly well with the Chef Sleeve “iPad Stand”. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I also tried out the stand with one of my son's Kindle Fires. It doesn't work well in the skinnier of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I also tried out the stand with one of my son’s Kindle Fires. It doesn’t work well in the skinnier of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Kindle Fire works well in the larger of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Kindle Fire works well in the larger of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Even though it’s a kitchen supply company selling these stands, I think this is something useful anywhere in the home or even in the office. If you do use it in the kitchen, it’s nice for it to be dishwasher safe just like the cutting board.

In summary, Chef Sleeve kitchen products are designed to help out those of us who enjoy using our tablets as our paperless cookbooks. I like the cutting board and iPad stand sustainable manufacturing (they’re made with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood fibers), and NSF-certified safety standards. Keep in mind that with few exceptions, if you use an iPad or tablet case, these products won’t necessarily work as easily.

The cutting board with iPad stand retails for $69.95, a 25-pack of protective sleeves for the device of your choice retails for $19.95, and the dishwasher-safe iPad stand retails for $34.95. Chef Sleeve products are available at retailers such as Amazon, Target, and They make great gifts for your favorite cooking geek.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

iPad App Review: DrawQuest

Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

My sons and I had the chance to check out a free iPad app: DrawQuest. If you or your kids have a knack for drawing, this free app will be a fun diversion for you. The Facebook-connected online community will bring out your best of Pictionary; Win, Lose, or Draw; or Draw Something!

Founded by 4chan and founder Christopher Poole, DrawQuest was designed as a “back to basics” outlet for those Canvas fans who enjoy modifying pictures. Poole discovered how much flexibility and liberty users were taking modifying photos.

DrawQuest is a free download from the Apple App Store. You can easily sign up with your Facebook account, but you don’t have to have a Facebook account to play. You can set up a username unilaterally.

DrawQuest isn’t a game, but then again, it is. The object of the app is to draw a picture based on a daily theme. Share the picture with the DrawQuest world (as well as on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, if you wish) and you can earn stars and coins. Those coins can be used to upgrade color palettes and earn other benefits.

Here’s how it works. Each day DrawQuest presents a quest of the day. The palette will have a partial drawing in place already and your quest will be to augment it. Use your imagination. Have a good time!

The interface is very similar to Draw Something, if you’re a fan of that particular game. Use your fingers. If you are ambitious enough, you can get really creative!

After you finish your drawing, by using the provided color palette and a paintbrush, marker, or pencil, you can share it to the DrawQuest community. You can compare your art with others in the community. You earn coins by completing quests, sharing the art, and earning lots of “likes” for your completed quests.

The welcome screen shows your profile and completed quests. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
The welcome screen shows your profile and completed quests. Some of my boys’ quests look more…um, mature…than others. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
A listing of recent quests. Unlike 4chan, these quests are appropriate for all ages. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
A listing of recent quests. Unlike 4chan, these quests are appropriate for all ages. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
With the coins you accumulate, you can buy more colors for your palette. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.
With the coins you accumulate, you can buy more colors for your palette. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

My sons took control of my iPad before long and began to flood my Facebook and Twitter feeds with their artwork. While some of it was very good, much of it was quite snarky.

In response to "Let's Make a Sandcastle", my sons decided to enable laser eyes. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
In response to “Let’s Make a Sandcastle,” my sons decided to enable laser eyes, making that little girl on the left cry. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
"What's in the Jar?" Nothing. A fine example of my older son's sense of humor. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
“What’s in the Jar?” Nothing. A fine example of my older son’s sense of humor. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

This is a fun, very basic app that is appropriate for all ages. Kids will particularly  enjoy the little prompts that get them to explore their creativity. I’m disappointed that it’s currently only available for iPad and nothing else. I see no indications that it will be available on any other platform anytime soon.

Sena Leather Cases Keep Your Tech Safe in Style

Magia Wallet for iPhone 5, Image: Sena

Sena produces a line of beautiful leather cases for phones, tablets, and laptops that look good, keep your tech safe, and provide functionality beyond the usual cases.

The Sena Magia Wallet, designed for the iPhone 5, is a leather case with a magnetic closure that doubles as a wallet. It has three slots for credit cards on the inside as well as a pocket that runs the length of the case.

Your phone stays in place with what they call Magia Tape. It’s basically a large, sticky rectangle on the inside of the case that adheres to the back of your phone. It’s a little disconcerting thinking your phone is just taped in place, but once your phone is stuck it really doesn’t budge.

Magia Wallet for iPhone 5, Image: Sena

You can still take your phone out of the case and there’s no residue left behind. It re-sticks to the case just as easily. You  have to pull pretty hard to get it to come undone, but this is a good thing since you don’t want it coming unstuck on its own. I felt very confident that my phone wasn’t going anywhere.

The credit card slots and storage pocket are just enough to keep you from having to bring a separate wallet when you’re running quick errands. I did find the credit card slots a little tight, and although they loosened up a bit due to the leather stretching over time, getting three cards in there was difficult, so I ended up just using it for two.

The magnetic clasp is a nice feature allowing easy access to your phone, but it does add to the thickness of the case. You might find it a little bulky for slipping it in your back pocket; more than once the clasp caught on my pocket.

Magia Wallet for iPhone 5, Image: Sena

Since there’s nothing covering the front of the phone when the case is open, you do risk scratches when you turn it face down. If you’ve ever had your phone out for a text conversation and wanted to leave it out for easy access, but facedown for privacy, it can be a bit of a problem.

On the plus side, the the ports and buttons can be accessed with the case closed and you can easily take pictures with it, too. I was concerned that the small opening for the camera might cause a shadow or even reflect when using the flash, but it worked without a hitch.

If you’re tired of having a wallet in one pocket and a phone in the other, this is a great option to combine the two. It’s nice to have everything in one place, especially for running errands or on a day out with the kids at an amusement park or a fair.

Magia Zip for iPad, Image: Sena

I also tried out the Sena Magia Zip for iPad. It works with the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations of the device and it turns your case into a folio that puts everything you need for work right at your fingertips.

The iPad secures to the case with the same Magia Tape that’s found in the wallet and it sticks just as well. The case comes with a stylus and has four credit card pockets and an I.D. pocket. There are also two medium pockets and one large pocket for holding extra things like receipts or business cards.

Magia Zip for iPad, Image: Sena

Much like the wallet, the slots for the credit cards are tight, but they do loosen up a little over time. The whole thing zips closed, so if you have larger papers that you need to tuck away you can put them in there and be sure you won’t be leaving a trail on your way back to your office.

It’s also got a handy built-in stand that pops out from the back of the case. The stand is completely recessed when it’s closed so it doesn’t add bulk to the design but is still strong enough when open that you can use your iPad without pushing it over accidentally.

The Magia Wallet for iPhone 5 retails for $54.95. The Magia Zip for iPad retails for $119.95. Both are stylish cases that will keep your tech safe and provide extra functionality to make your life easier.

Disclaimer: I received these cases for review purposes.

Jazzy World Tour Shows Kids Music and Culture From Around the World

Main Menu Map © The Melody Book
Main Menu Map © The Melody Book

A year ago I wrote about a pre-school music app called A Jazzy Day. The app became a favorite of my son and featured cute cartoon cats who learned all about the instruments in a jazz orchestra by visiting the big band in New York City. A sequel, Jazzy World Tour, has recently been released and my son has been enjoying playing this new offering for the past few weeks.

Jazzy World Tour moves away from the linear story mode of its predecessor and broadens its educational reach. Rather than learning just about musical instruments, Jazzy World Tour introduces geography and cultural studies as players travel between countries from the main menu (a map of the world) and see each nation’s instruments as part of a wider cultural experience. Seven countries are available to explore: The USA, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Egypt, Kenya, and India, and each country has three options to explore with (learn, play and create).

The Play Tab in Egypt and the Create Tab in Australia © The Melody Book
The Play Tab in Egypt and the Create Tab in Australia © The Melody Book

The “learn” tab introduces some basic objects that teach players about the culture of the chosen country. These include a selection of musical instruments, local wildlife, famous buildings, foods, religious deities and more: The India selection includes a lotus flower, the Taj Mahal, a cobra, a sitar and Ganesh. Each of these objects is drawn in a colorful cartoon style. Tapping it brings up a short, simple paragraph explaining what it is with the object’s name spoken aloud, this is very helpful for certain words you may not have encountered before. The “play” tab brings up a single screen in which many of the items found in the “learn” tab are brought together to form a picture of that country along with local music forming a backdrop. Tapping each image animates it. Many of the musical instruments will be represented, so by tapping around the player, can create music from that location. The final tab is “create.” Here players can use animated stickers to create scenes (either still pictures or short animated videos) which can then be added to their “travel book” as they visit the different countries; they can also be instantly shared via social media, emailed or saved to the device. The Travel Book is accessible from the main menu and serves as a sort of scrapbook of the player’s experiences as they travel the world.

Naturally, an app like this cannot go into great depth for each of the countries it includes, however the scenes and items from the different cultures are great for young children only just learning about the way in which places and people differ. The app is bright and engaging, the animations are often funny (my son fell in love with the emu in the Australia section which would run off screen and then slip back on a moment later) and the learning is subtle. In choosing not to have a linear story mode, the app does feel like something is lacking when compared to its narrated predecessor. As it is, the app feels a little disjointed from my perspective. However, my 3-year-old loves jumping from country to country making as much noise as possible.

The Learn Tab in India © The Melody Book
The Learn Tab in India © The Melody Book

Jazzy World Tour is a great addition to your app collection and is great for kids beginning at pre-school age and ranging up to middle school as their reading skills increase and they can move from using the app as a musical sticker book to reading the information about different cultures by themselves. I’d love to see more countries opened up on the map and hope that we might see such an expansion one day as there are so many great cultures left to explore.

A copy of Jazzy World Tour was provided free for this review. It is available on the Apple Store costing $4.99/£2.99 for the complete game, or you can download a “free” trial edition featuring just one country, and buy the rest of the map as individual expansions costing 99c each.

Life Geekery Tablet Covers

Life Geekery, used with permission

I stumbled across Life Geekery’s shop a few months ago when I was searching Etsy for Harry Potter goodies (as one does). I  wasn’t even looking for a Kindle/iPad/iPhone cover at the time, but when I found this shop Ihad to have one. The heart wants what the heart wants, so Harry and my iPad Mini have been together for three months now.

Life Geekery is run by the husband and wife team of Matt and Nikki Mason, and their handmade designs are witty, made with Eco Felt, and priced around $30. I contacted Nikki to find out what inspired them and how they got started.

We’re a super nerdy husband and wife team that love to craft! The whole geeky cozy business started simply because I wanted a fun little case to store my own Kindle and couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. After coming up with a few different ideas we decided to make them and put them up on Etsy just to see if other people would like them as much as we did…and they did! Now we get to spread the joy to nerds everywhere and we couldn’t be more happy about that!

So, basically, the couple behind this business is just as much fun as their product. With more than 700 sales in less than two years, the shop is definitely popular. In addition to the awesome Firefly, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Dr. Who cases pictured above, designs also include Chewbacca, Frodo Baggins, and several others (Sherlock cover, stop flirting with me!). I’ve seen a Ron Weasley cover on their site, and I could swear I saw a TARDIS flash by on their website banner.

Sherlock cover by Life Geekery, used with permission
Sherlock cover by Life Geekery, used with permission

I asked Nikki who comes up with the designs, and she told me, “My husband and I collaborate on the designs, but he’s more of the designer and I’m more of the sewer.” Nikki and Matt are based in Hawaii, and each case is handmade to order—you can specify the tablet or phone it’s meant to fit. This means your case will not arrive right away. I waited a good few weeks to get mine, but I’ve had it since early March and thought it was well worth the wait.

I had to get used to having the opening at the bottom since these are sleeves and not cases (my typical cover preference). I’ve never used a sleeve for a Kindle or iPad before, so for the first few days I nearly dropped my Mini a few times because I kept carrying Harry right side up. And felt is slippery. I think I would slightly prefer to have the opening at the top of the sleeve, but I’m torn because I like the instant access when plugging it in to charge. Cases are fiddly on that point. And, honestly, once I got used to carrying Harry upside down it was no longer a problem. My Mini is protected, and it looks very cool. It’s also very easy to find in my giant, bottomless bag of stuff, and it makes me happy every time I see it. This has been one of my favorite purchases of 2013.

For the love of all that is awesome, check out Life Geekery’s shop!

Fund This: My Little Geek’s Nerdy Numbers and Sci-Fi Shapes

The authors behind 2011’s “My Little Geek” are ready to launch two sequels and a companion iPad app. Image: Andrew and Sarah Spear.

Welcome to another edition of Fund This, GeekMom’s bi-weekly section that focuses on places to invest some of your hard-earned cash. We are looking to highlight a few of the most interesting projects on crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and many more. Ready to make someone’s dream a reality?

A while back, GeekMom Kristen introduced us to the ABCs of geekiness, via an in-depth peek inside the My Little Geek board book and its companion app. Now, New Zealanders Andrew and Sarah Spear are at it again, working on two follow-up books and another iPad app. However, to get Nerdy Numbers and Sci-Fi Shapes made, they’re going to need a little help. So, Andrew and Sarah recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.

“While our first book was certainly a success, selling thousands of copies, it was our first publishing project and we only just broke even,” says Andrew. “Thanks to the lessons learned in round one, we are now able to produce two books and an iPad app for pretty much the same cost as our entire outlay for that first book!”

Nerdy Numbers has your basic 1 through 10. However, unlike every single numbers-based board book out there, it has a few curve balls, such as pi and the speed of light. Sci-Fi Shapes starts out with the same simplicity, introducing triangles and squares. Soon after, it takes off into the twin helix and even the elusive tesseract.

The new iPad app will include all three of the couple’s books, as well as a total of 12 educational (and geeky!) games.

If you want to reserve a book, there are a few more slots left for the $16 early-bird special. That will get you one of the new books or you can opt to get both with a pledge of $36. There are options for sets and autographed copies as well, but bragging rights come with a minimum pledge of $500. For that, you can choose to have your child’s favorite toy or pet actually appear in one of the upcoming books.

The new iPad app will include all three “My Little Geek” books and 12 geeky games. Image: Andrew and Sarah Spear.

At last peek, the duo had raised about half of their $10,000 Kickstarter goal. If the couple can surpass that number, they hope to double production and maybe even kick off on a preschool promotional tour in the U.S.

If you want to give your child (or someone else’s) the gift of geek, My Little Geek’s campaign is running through Tuesday, June 25, 2013.

OGIO Manhattan Bag Review

Ogio Brooklyn Bag \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Ogio Brooklyn Bag \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Bags are one of my geeky pleasures. Lately, I’ve been checking out the Ogio: Brooklyn. It’s a simple messenger bag and, thanks to my geeky button collection, I was able to give a little bit of a face lift. Underneath the Superman, Flash and Batman buttons is actually three regular buttons that once you undo, lets you access a hidden pocket under the flap.

The bag has two large main compartments pockets, two inside zippered pockets and a hidden one under the flap on the front. One of the inside zippered pockets is padded to hold either an iPad or other similar sized device (8.5”h x 11.75”w). The strap is a little wider than what I’m use to, but it’s still comfortable as an over the shoulder as well as messenger style. There’s plenty of room on it for buttons, patches or other personalizing you may wish to do.

The inside is pretty roomy and comfortably holds my Kindle Fire (new seven-inch HD), iPad 3 and two marvel graphic novels. Even with the weight that my two devices and two books put on it, I felt the strap could handle it. I’ve had bags in the past where the straps would start to wear down under the same conditions.


The bottom of the bag is a little padded to keep any electronics you place inside safe. This is very important to me because I never go anywhere without my iPad and my Kindle Fire.

The Brooklyn is available in five different colors including what I like to call “April O’Neal yellow”.

You can purchase the Ogio: Brooklyn on Amazon or directly from Ogio’s website and is available in five different colors.

In exchange for my time and efforts in  reporting my opinion within this blog, I received a free review sample. Even though I receive this benefit, I always give an opinion that is 100% mine.


The Gripcase and GripBase: An iPad Case/Stand Combo for Young Hands

The Gripcase is a shock-absorbing, virtually indestructible iPad case that is perfect for young users. The stand is optional, but definitely a useful addition. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The Gripcase is a shock-absorbing, virtually indestructible iPad case that is perfect for young users. The stand is optional, but definitely a useful addition. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I was excited for the chance to review the new Gripcase and accompanying GripBase support stand. My sons are often bogarting my iPad 2 for their favorite games, such as Where’s My Perry, Fruit Ninja, and Angry Birds. They also help me through particularly tough levels on Candy Crush Saga for me.

Brian Norfolk, the creator of the Gripcase, came up with the design as he was constantly worrying about his two-year-old son using the iPad he received one Christmas.

Continue reading The Gripcase and GripBase: An iPad Case/Stand Combo for Young Hands

Summer Challenge: Leave Your Phone at Home

Photo CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle
Photo CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle

I have a lot of lucky Facebook friends who get to go on some awesome vacations. I know this because the first sign of summer is that my news feed fills up with up-to-the-minute photos of sandy beaches, fruity drinks, and amusing limbo contest outcomes. I like all these things, but I don’t want to see them–until you come back.

You’re a geek, I’m a geek. We love our devices. We love our connection to the world. And we love it because it lets us share with each other. I get it, I really do. But here’s my challenge to you:

This summer, leave your phone at home. No excuses, including:

I can’t ignore my work email!
You have one of two problems: either you think you are far more important than you are, or you need to make a hit-by-a-bus contingency plan for your job. The company can do without you for a week. Your personal email will still be there when you get back, too. Vacation is for vacating.

But I’ll have too much email when I get back!
And you’ll deal with it. If your job is so critical to the continued functioning of humanity that you can’t put it down for a week and catch up later, you don’t have time to waste reading this blog. Block out time on the day or two after you return for going through what you missed. You’ll probably find a lot of it can go straight to the trash, unless you’re really hoping that birthday cake from last Tuesday is still in the break room.

* Bonus points for the brave: The true vacation warrior option is to declare email bankruptcy. You set your out of office message to say that upon your return, you will be deleting all of the emails received while you were gone (thus “email bankruptcy”) and to please get in touch with you afterwards. While I know people who have done this successfully, I have not yet levelled up to this skill.

I just want to check in on Facebook!
No, you don’t. That’s your excuse for “I want to make my friends jealous with my pictures of mai tais and belly flops.” All you’re missing on Facebook is the same old cat pictures and “share this if you care” glurge. Is that really a better use of your time than the vacation you’re paying good money and time for?

I need it for the camera!
Get a real camera. Seriously. You probably even have one collecting dust. I don’t care how good your phone is–the real camera will take better pictures. And if you do need to buy one, consider it an excuse to geek out over some new tech while you pick one out. Take your camera and snap some memories. But don’t show them to me until you get home.

I need Google Maps!
It is a gosh-darn miracle that we all managed to navigate strange places before Google Maps was invented. How in the world did anybody ever get home?! Teach the kids how to use an actual map made with paper. It’s a learning opportunity! …if you can remember how yourself.

I have to post on my blog every week!
Schedule them. Your blog system has this built in. That’s not even a good attempt at an excuse.

I want to read my Kindle on the plane!
OK, this is the one concession I’ll give you. You can take a Kindle or Kobo e-ink type screen so that you don’t have to carry as many books and can still read in the sun. But no turning on the wifi.

You get, what? Two, maybe three weeks of vacation a year at most? And you’re going to use them staring at a 4.5″ screen? You’re also going to have one less bag to carry when you realize just how much space all those chargers take. This is that “work-life balance” thing everyone’s been clamoring for. Get a little more life in your balance.

This summer, un-geek a bit for a week. I promise, you can do it.

Father’s Day Gifts with Ulterior Motives: iGrill

iDevices iGrill pictured in use making tasty ribs

On Mother’s Day, they tend to advertise a lot of things like vacuums and ironing boards. I think that’s a little mean. It’s like giving someone a gift that says, “Clean my house!” I’ll admit that I’m occasionally guilty of doing this for Father’s Day, although my gifts usually say “Cook for me!”  He likes cooking, and I like eating, so I refuse to feel guilty about it. This year, I received a review model of the iDevices iGrill, and I wanted to see if it qualifies as good gift encouragement for more tasty smoked meats. Continue reading Father’s Day Gifts with Ulterior Motives: iGrill

Review: Hand Stylus Shows Promise

Hand Stylus
Image courtesy Hand Stylus

I’ve been going through a bunch of styluses lately. It turns out they mostly suck. Picture trying to write something with a hot dog encased in metal. Not exactly an artists dream, and usually I just give up and used my finger. You know, one of the ten styluses Steve Jobs said we carried with us all the time?

The Hand Stylus ended up not sucking. Hooray! They sent me a couple of prototypes, and I’m glad I checked them out. The Hand Stylus is being funded as a Kickstarter project. Funding closes June 17, and the styluses should hit stores sometime in mid to late July for a retail price around $35-40. (Hand Stylus designer Steven King emailed me to tell me the retail price would actually be $25-$29) You can save $5 on a stylus and tip bundle if you buy it through the Kickstarter.
Continue reading Review: Hand Stylus Shows Promise

Verso Offers The Coolest Cases Ever

Verso Kindle Fire and iPad cases
Photo: Marziah Karch

When I pre-ordered my Kindle Fire, I also pre-ordered the Verso Prologue case cover pictured in the center of this photo. When it arrived, my husband immediately wanted a Kindle Fire, not because he was a huge Fire fan, but because the case was so cool. It instantly turns your Fire into a steampunk costume accessory. What’s not to love about that?

The Verso Prologue is a simple leather case that opens just like a book, and the Kindle Fire or Touch is held in place with elastic on the corners. The positon of the elastic means it works with a lot of devices. It won’t work with every device, so be sure to check the specifics on your device. It works great with the old Galaxy Tab, but the new Galaxy Tab 7+ does not work. I’ve tried. The elastic hits the volume button.

I visited with Lightwedge, the company that makes the Verso covers at a recent press event, and I got to preview their new line. It should be out by “back to school” time, so sometime probably in the summer. I can’t wait. They’ve added larger sizes, so iPad and larger Android tablet fans should jump for joy here. I know I am.

They’ve also added this very cool Victorian marbled paper look, one of which is pictured above in iPad size. I really wanted to just buy one on the spot, but apparently they’re sending them back to the manufacturer to get a better texture on them before they start mass production.

The whole idea of book-like covers for tablets is just super appealing. If you can’t wait for Verso, there’s the Twelve South BookBook series of cases, which also have side protection. Even more fun, you can follow these instructions to make your own iPad case. I think I may have to do that for a few of my tablets. They deserve some geeky cover love.


Disney’s “It’s a Small World” Interactive iOS App

Loading Screen of the "It's a Small World" App © Disney
Loading Screen of the “It’s a Small World” App © Disney

Anybody who knows me personally will know that I am an enormous Disney geek. Interestingly, for me it is not so much about the films as it is the theme parks. There are paintings all over our house of the parks, I have a collection of plates and collectables and several boards full of trading pins. The best present I received this Christmas was a surprise from my husband, a set of figures based on characters who appear only (or mostly) in the parks, the yeti from the Matterhorn, Figment from EPCOT and a Ghost from the Haunted Mansion were included amongst others. So when I heard that Disney were releasing a story app based on one of their most beloved (or possibly infamous) rides, “It’s a Small World” – I absolutely had to try it out.

I will first answer the question that every single person familiar to that ride is currently asking, yes it does include the song. However this is a version of the song that has been toned down to more instrumental and melodic background music, rather than the invasive song well known to Disney park patrons. The music hums away in the background and provides a perfect score to the story without being intrusive. That’s until you get to the very end when the chorus of the original song pipes up on repeat until you hit the menu button and you’re stuck with it in your head for the rest of the day.

All the scenes are beautifully drawn & use vivid colours © Disney
All the scenes are beautifully drawn & use vivid colours © Disney

The story itself is based on the lyrics and take the reader on a journey through a series of beautiful settings based on different countries and cultures. Each scene is accompanied by a single line from the song and features a variety of interactive elements that can be activated by clicking on parts of the image. Clicking an animal might cause it to make a noise, a boat might sail off across the sea or a child might laugh and blow a kiss. The app automatically pans across the image, however you can use your finger to drag the image back and revisit parts of it. All sorts of countries and cultures are represented from the Arctic to Africa, Japan to London.

The menu screen with spinning wheel to select a scene © Disney
The menu screen with spinning wheel to select a scene © Disney

Inbetween scenes a hot air balloon sails onto the screen to take you on the next stage of the journey as the scene loads. If left alone, the app will automatically work its way through each line/scene of the song, however the menu does give you the option to jump to any you choose through a nicely designed animated scrolling wheel. This can be accessed at any time throughout your journey and also allows you to return to the home page.

The day after I received this app, I switched it on and handed my phone over to my two year old. Despite the app being rated 4+, my son found it easy to get to grips with; he was quickly poking at things and getting dogs barking and bagpipes playing (in case it isn’t obvious – this is NOT a quiet app.) I do have to admit that the app hasn’t held his attention for long, however I can honestly say that I think this is simply a phase he is going through as none of his previously favoured apps have been left running very long lately either. Because of the auto scrolling, he was able to move through the different screens without needing my help and if his attention span was longer, he could easily have worked through the full app.

The word "laugh" appears as you tap a laughing girl © Disney
The word “laugh” appears as you tap a laughing girl © Disney

The app would also work well as a simple short story book for an older child, each line is spoken aloud so no reading skills are required, however the words are printed on screen for those learning to read. Do remember however that as this story is based on song lyrics, there are not that many lines so the app’s value as a “learning to read” tool is limited. Certain characters also produce a written word that relates to the action they are performing when they are tapped, these are simple words such as “give” and “laugh.” The app contains one other small feature, a karaoke screen which sings the chorus with the words up on screen and a traditional karaoke bouncing along on top of them. This is the same screen that appears at the end of the story but it can be accessed directly from the main menu. I suggest you don’t tell your kids about it if you ever want to get the song out of your head.

As a Disney park enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed this app and would happily sit and watch the story unfold even by myself. I would love to see a range of these interactive story apps based on other Disney park rides – the Haunted Mansion being my number one desire – and if this is the quality benchmark then I’d be very happy indeed. If you’re not a Disney fan this app won’t win you over, however given the subject I feel that an app like this was always aimed at existing enthusiasts rather than a more casual market. All together this is a beautiful looking app with a simple interface and lots of fun to be had within, please make more Disney.

“It’s a Small World” is available for iPhone and iPad for $3.99/£2.49. A copy of this app was provided free for review.


Quirky Digits, Warm Fingers

Digits - image courtesy Quirky
Image Courtesy Quirky

Occasionally, I need to make a call during bad weather, and that means I run into a conductivity problem with my gloves. You can’t use normal gloves with a smartphone because they don’t allow the electrical signal to transfer from your finger to the phone screen. I’ve solved this problem in the past by using those half-mitten, half-fingerless gloves (with the flaps that close over the fingers). They’re OK, but my fingers get chilled by the draft that creeps under the flap. Another option would be to buy conductive gloves (like these gloves reviewed by Amy Kraft last week), but this doesn’t help if you’ve got a set of gloves you already like.

I actually buy my gloves in multiple sets, on sale, and then stuff pairs in all of my coats’ pockets. Even with this strategy, I misplace gloves often enough that I’ve been tempted to attach them to my coat arms with a string, much like I did in grade school. What I’ve really needed is a low-cost way to rig several sets of gloves for conductivity.

Enter, Quirky: a social invention site that allows users to submit ideas for new inventions and share in any profits for ideas that turn into products. Quirky came up with a solution to my dilemma: Digits, an accessory that simply attaches to your existing gloves to create conductivity. Digits are black buttons with conductive silicon on the outside and metal on the inside. They come in two pieces. You poke a small hole in your glove from the inside and screw the outside portion on the top. Make sure it’s secure–I lost a button this way as I was testing.

I also tested several pairs of gloves. A set comes with four buttons, but I’m not sure you really need to use all of them, unless you’re a super-dedicated, multi-touch, gesture kind of geek who absolutely needs to use four fingers. I can live with only one finger being conductive when it’s cold outside. That brings up another point. The metal backings do lose heat faster than the rest of the glove. My fingers were still generally warm, but the metal backing was definitely colder than the rest of the glove. This is also a problem with gloves that come with the conductive areas built in, but at least you can limit the number of affected digits this way. You’ll also notice the button when using your gloves for other activities, like driving. It wasn’t terrible, but something to keep in mind.

I tried several gloves, and loose gloves were difficult to control. There’s definitely a thick bump between your finger and the surface of whatever you touch, so you need some tension to keep your finger and the Digits together. Lightweight fleece gloves were too cold, but that might have just been because they’re inadequate by themselves. Thick, tight-fitting gloves were perfect. My favorite set was a fleece-lined pair of suede Isotoners I bought from Woot last year. I put the button in one finger only, and I can continue to read my tablet while sitting outside waiting for the bus. Awesome. Would I rather be toasty warm somewhere inside? Yes, but at least this way I have my eBooks to comfort me in the cold.

Quirky sells Digits in four-packs for $11.99. Full disclosure: Quirky provided sample product for this review.

How the IPad Is Teaching My Son to Talk

My Son the Fire Fighter

This is my son. He’s an aspiring fire fighter and a fan of Thomas, Lego, and Angry Birds. He’s also autistic. He has difficulty getting his words out because of a speech issue called apraxia. Basically, his mouth is a klutz and doesn’t do a great job planning out the sequence of events it takes to form words. His mouth would be the worst guest on Dancing with the Stars, ever. Meanwhile, he can understand  a whole heck of a lot more than he can say, which means a lot of frustration on his end and people easily underestimating his abilities on the other end.

What to do? Well, last year he took an expensive, specialized speech-generating device with him to school. His “talker.” Under the hood, it’s really just a modified Windows XP tablet with an extra sturdy case and a handle. Insurance paid for it, thankfully, because otherwise it would have been a stretch to purchase a several-thousand-dollar device, and we might have been at the whim of the school district. They’re lovely people, but we’d heard stories of parents fighting to keep the device with their kids after school and over holidays.

The other drawback with such a specialized device is that our darned kid outgrew it right away. He learned to read and write pretty quickly, and he needed something with more than pictures. Toward the end of the year, it broke, and we questioned whether or not it was worth it to pay for the repairs. The next step up in devices costs approximately $7,500, and it was doubtful that insurance would pay for another.

Enter the iPad.

IPad you say? Indeed. We purchased a refurbished model when the iPad 2 came out. If it didn’t work for speech, it would surely work for something educational. You can buy tons of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) apps for iPods and iPads. Part of the problem is that most of them suck. There are some exceptions, but I think they prove the rule. These apps are made by very dedicated individuals who love their kids, don’t get me wrong. They may or may not consult with speech therapists and I’m awfully certain don’t ever consult with UI or design experts. They’re limited in options, difficult to navigate, and confusing for teachers and students alike.

We had him reevaluated at the same clinic where they’d recommended his first talker. I point this out, because it’s important to get some expert opinions involved before you go spending hundreds of dollars on apps. Given our monetary constraints, they recommended we try Proloquo 2 Go, a $189 iPod/iPad app. That and the slightly more expensive (for the whole package) TouchChat were the only two apps they recommended. I’ll toss in that the free Verbally app works great for fluent readers who don’t need picture supports.

How does it work?  Well, for my son, it’s been an interesting week. I expected him to explore the icons and learn to navigate the system. Instead, he’s been switching to keyboard mode and trying his best to type out everything, including words he doesn’t yet know how to spell. He’s absolutely fascinated when you type out a new sentence for him and he can hear it  spoken.  I’d call that a win.