Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Spelling Apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun (Fair Use)
Spelling apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun.

In the last few months, my 5-year-old son is now being taught spelling at school. As a result, I have been on the lookout for anything that will help him. One of the solutions I settled on quickly was using iPad apps.

Since we began using the iPad for spelling practice, his spelling has improved greatly, but much more importantly, his eagerness and enthusiasm about practicing spelling has improved too. Rather than battling to get a single practice in each night, not to mention the constant battle to find a scrap of paper and a single working pen despite the fact I had 50 of the darned things overflowing from a drawer last week, now I find him practicing spelling without even being asked—or choosing to go back over a few previous tests after completing his current one.

I wanted to share two great spelling apps with other parents who are in the same boat.

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Transport Tycoon Pulls Into Your Mobile Device

Transport Tycoon © Chris Sawyer
Transport Tycoon © Chris Sawyer

I grew up playing the classic Sim games from Maxis. We had Sim Life on our Amiga 1200 and I later grew so obsessed with my Sim Ant game on our first PC that I did an elementary school science project using the game manual as a resource (hey, the back of the book was basically a biology textbook about real ants; it was legitimate research).

Since those days, sim games have grown far more sophisticated just as I have grown away from them, but when I was offered the chance to play with the latest edition of Transport Tycoon I was interested to see how the game would compare to my memories.

Transport Tycoon is a classic in its own right and was originally released in 1994 (I can clearly remember seeing that box on the shelves of my local games store when I was a kid). The game allows players to build up a transport empire of road, rail, sea, and air transportation, beginning in the 1900s and progressing through time to the modern day. The iPad app features a number of different scenarios to be played through at different levels of difficulty. Easy scenarios can be as “simple” as carrying 1000 passengers within ten years, expert challenges include attaining monthly profits of £1 million, and finishing the game as the top company against up to 14 rivals.

I actually found the game quite hard to get into. Setting up bus routes in existing towns was simple enough but the process of laying out railway track between towns felt tedious and overly complicated compared with games I’ve played in the past. The grainy “retro” feel to the graphics combined with the slightly clumsy touch screen interaction made the game more difficult than it should have been simply because of the visuals. At one point I struggled to understand why a bus route wasn’t working. It took some considerable effort to spot that a section of road was pointing the wrong way so the bus couldn’t travel along it. Rather than giving me a warning error to explain that the route was impossible, the bus just trundled around in an endless loop visiting the same single stop over and over.

My Transport Tycoon game (yes I named my company after Twin Peaks) © Sophie Brown
My Transport Tycoon game (yes I named my company after Twin Peaks) © Sophie Brown

That being said, I still found myself playing for longer than I intended, getting sucked into watching the little profit counter steadily increasing as I expanded my bus empire into more and more cities (I’d given up on trains at this point—the track seemed too expensive to invest in). My four-year-old son would happily sit beside me wanting to watch the little vehicles zooming about on their errands. He found it fascinating and I even found him attempting to play the game on more than one occasion, despite it being far too complex for his age.

I wouldn’t be rushing out to purchase Transport Tycoon if this had just been a demo. For me these games have become too complex. I enjoyed the basic gameplay of the early sim games (my last copy of Sim City was nothing more than a grid) rather than the constant micro-management required of modern variants. Interestingly, my husband feels the same way about current football manager games.

But there’s no doubt that Transport Tycoon is a well-built game with a lot packed into its meager $7 (£5) price tag. If you’re prepared to invest the time then you will definitely reap what you sow.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Terrific Children's and YA Books on Sale for Kindle This Month

Great children's and YA books on sale for Kindle in December

Every month, Amazon unveils a new list of discounted Kindle books. The December list contains some real gems, especially for lovers of children’s literature.

A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket. Needs no introduction! Kindle price: $1.99.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — one of the great fantasy authors of all time (my favorite of her books is the strange and lovely Dogsbody, the story of a celestial being who is stripped of his powers and exiled into the body of a dog on earth). Howl’s Moving Castle is one of her finest books. Kindle price: $1.99.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, the first in her highly acclaimed series of Attolia novels. Kindle price: $1.99.

Seekers #1: The Quest Begins by Erin Hunter. Hunter’s Warriors books, about rival clans of anthropomorphic cats, have been the hands-down favorites of my middle two daughters for the past four years, trumping even Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Betsy-Tacy. Seekers is a a spinoff series, like Warriors but with bears. Kindle price: $1.99.

Mindblind by Jennifer Roy. A compelling YA novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome striving to use his mathematical gifts in a way that makes a contribution to the world—his personal definition of genius. Kindle price: $1.99.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. This one is temporarily flagged as “under review,” but it looks like its December Kindle price is going to be $1.99, and it’s worth checking back later in the month to see if the buy button has been restored. UPDATED 12/5: It’s back, and it is indeed $1.99. A fascinating story about a man’s quest to build a clock that would keep time at sea in order to solve a thorny navigation problem that had led to the deaths of countless sailors over the centuries.

Here’s the complete list of 100 Kindle Books for $3.99 or less for the month of December. I’ll be loading up my Kindle Fire with several of the books above. My kids still prefer hard copies, but I confess I’ve reached the point where I’m yearning for ebook versions of my old favorites — I’ve become pretty attached to the joys of a built-in light and enlargeable fonts. How about you?

Four Fun Math Apps

Marble Math app by Artgig Studios
Marble Math by Artgig Studios

“Mom, can I play that math game?” These words are a frequent refrain around my house these days, and they’re music to my ears. Here’s a look at four great math apps my kids are not just enjoying, they’re begging to play.

Numbers 1 and 2: Artgig Studio‘s Marble Math apps for iOS are so good they score two spots on my list: one for Marble Math and one for Marble Math Junior. Kids drag a marble around the screen (there’s a tilt-the-screen option too) to hit the right answers and fun bonus items. Both versions of this app have been an enormous hit with my kids ages three through 11. The three-year-old needs help from me or an older sibling to identify odd and even numbers, count by fives and tens, or work the simple addition problems in Marble Math Junior; the six- and eight-year-olds can play it independently, picking up some excellent math-fact drill quite unawares. The older kids’ app presents more challenging problems but delivers the same absorbing, addictive game action. These apps get my highest recommendation.

And speaking of addictive…

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Mother’s Day for the Techie

As much as I love a nice necklace or a great looking outfit, those aren’t the things I usually wish for on Mother’s Day. As a lover of all things geeky and shiny, I would like to present the GeekMom Mother’s Day Gift Guide for the tech oriented mom:

BiKN Device
This device turns mom’s iPhone into a personal tracking device. After setting up the app and smart tags to the people or things she doesn’t want to lose, the BiKN will alert her if they get too far away.

Continue reading Mother’s Day for the Techie

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.


Kindle Fire User Diary: First Impressions

The first time I played with an iPad, all I could think of was Neal Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk masterpiece, The Diamond Age. Subtitled “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” the novel tells the story of a girl more or less raised by an intricately engineered interactive computer in the guise of a book. The Primer, a nanotech marvel, is far more sophisticated than the tablet computers of 2011—but when you flick around the intuitive operating systems of today’s tablets and smartphones, you can see the Primer on the horizon.

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is another Primer cousin.

Image source: Amazon

It’s funny—in the days leading up to its arrival, I assumed I’d have a lot to say about the Kindle Fire when it finally came. What happened instead is that the Fire simply inserted itself into my daily life in a manner so seamless I had little to say about it. It was as if I’d had one all along.

In a way, I had: My chief impression of the Kindle Fire so far is that it’s like my (much-loved) Android smartphone, only bigger. (My phone, for the curious, is a Samsung Epic: Trixie to her friends.) The Fire’s gorgeous display and easy navigation puts me on familiar ground. It’s heavier than I expected, a solid weight in my hand. It’s about the same size as my Kindle, but thicker, and of course the whole thing is screen. No keyboard. A glossy black screen, a rubbery-feeling back. It’s book-sized, which I love.

My already-smudged Kindle Fire and my battered, sunfaded copy of The Diamond Age—a book you should totally read, if you haven't already.

The tech sites have been overflowing with detailed reviews of the Kindle Fire’s specs and performance. What I always want to know, when I’m reading device reviews, is: how are you using it? On a practical level, I mean. What are you doing with it throughout your day? What apps do you use, enjoy, rely on?

So far, my answer to those questions is: reading books, mostly. Actually, I’m reading on it more than I expected to. See, I love my regular Kindle’s easy-on-the-eyes e-ink display, and I especially love its lack of internet distractions. Sure, I can check my mail on the Kindle, but the pokey browser and monochrome display render internet activity helpfully unappealing. I’ve seen it as a plus that I’m not tempted to flick away from a novel to take a peek at Twitter, the way I’m tempted if I’m reading a book on my phone.

Well, on the Kindle Fire, web-browsing, blog-reading, and mail-checking are even easier (and prettier) than on my phone. But so far, I’m most enchanted by the Fire as an e-reader. The regular Kindle still beats it for daytime, sunlit reading. For reading in bed at night, the Fire is my new best friend: that’s when backlighting becomes a plus. The 7-inch screen is much better for book-reading than my phone, but not so big that it’s bulky or uncomfortable. (The iPad has always struck me as too large for comfy curling up in bed. But I don’t have one, so I could be wrong.) On the Fire, as on the iPod Touch or an Android smartphone, you turn pages with a tap of the thumb, which is even easier than pressing the Kindle’s page-turn button.

Comics look AMAZING on the Fire—just like they do on the iPad. Backlit comics are utterly luminous; it’s like this is the medium comics wanted to be all along. If only they weren’t so darned expensive ($2.99-3.99 a pop). I downloaded a free issue of Tiny Titans via the Comixology app just to see what comics would be like on this device, and all of us—kids, hubby, me—were blown away by how beautiful the panels looked. And the size was fairly comfortable, to my surprise. I still think the iPad is a better comics reader due to its larger size. The Fire is just a bit too small for ideal comics-reading if you struggle with small print the way I do. Sure, you can enlarge the panels, but that’s a pain.

Amazon has trumpeted the Fire’s video-viewing capabilities. Of course we were eager to try this feature out. You certainly can’t beat the convenience: The trip from Home screen to the opening frame of Arrested Development (free via my Amazon Prime membership) took less than fifteen seconds (I counted fourteen Mississippis) and the picture quality was stunning.

If the image quality is this good in a photo taken with my beat-up camera, imagine how much better it looks in real life.

Playing videos outside Prime has been less satisfactory; my husband and I are trying to catch up on Season 5 of The Guild, and there’s been a fair amount of lag and stuttering.

As for games, naturally we had to download Angry Birds—the official gadget rite of initiation. Again, the quality of the graphics made us all go oooh. The kids asked for Bejeweled, too. That’s all we’ve tried so far—suggestions welcome! Of course you know a Glitch app is at the top of my wish list.

A couple of Fire negatives:

• Typing on the screen keyboard is ponderous because it doesn’t have Swype. And honestly, this is messing me up. The Fire looks and acts so much like my smartphone that my brain cannot seem to wrap itself around the tedious reality of key-tapping on this thing. Swype is so much faster, easier, better in every way. Without Swype, how will I tweet?

• Occasionally the operating system seems to hang. I’ll push the browser’s back arrow, for example, and nothing will happen. Sometimes it takes an extra tap or two to get a response.

I’ll be interested to see what role the Kindle Fire settles into in our home. What I’m really eager to experiment with are good apps for kids—digital books, games, educational apps, etc. If you’ve got favorites, leave me a comment!

Amazon Unveils The Kindle Fire, Complete With Geek Content, And Three New Kindles

Image credit:

This morning Amazon officially announced its much-awaited Android-based tablet, the Kindle Fire. The big news is that at $199, it’s half the price of the cheapest iPad and nearly as cheap as the $149 TouchPads that went flying off shelves when HP discontinued support last month.

The Kindle Fire will have a 7″ display ready for instant access to Amazon’s growing Android app store, as well as its library of streaming movies and shows, which as of this week includes a deal for Fox content. It also comes with a 30-day trial of Amazon Prime. Having had Prime for several years, I can say that it is increasingly well-worth its $79/year price. Because Prime also gives you free (and commercial-free) access to 11,000 movies and TV shows, it’s even more worthwhile if you get a Fire.

Some anticipated that $79 subscription would come with the Fire. Instead you get free Amazon Cloud storage.

“Kindle Fire brings together all of the things we’ve been working on at Amazon for over 15 years into a single, fully-integrated service for customers,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “With Kindle Fire, you have instant access to all the content, free storage in the Amazon Cloud, [and] the convenience of Amazon Whispersync.”

According to the Kindle Fire’s press release, its digital content selection will include “100 exclusive graphic novels, including Watchmen, which has never before been available in digital format, as well as Batman: Arkham City, Superman: Earth OneGreen Lantern: Secret Origin and 96 others from DC Entertainment.”

On the down side, there’s no 3G connectivity in the Fire, unlike the Kindle, which has been my savior when traveling. Phone not working in the middle of a conference in Paris? Battery-eating phone suddenly dead in Boston? Either way, I can whip out my Kindle with its practically never-ending battery life, and I’ve got my email, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the web ready to go in black-and-white eInk with no monthly fee, just eternal 3G.

Speaking of battery life, the Kindle Fire is expected to last seven hours on WiFi. It’s got 8 GB of storage (compared to the 16 GB or 32 GB of the aforementioned cheap TouchPads) and a 1 GHz dual-core TI OMAP processor.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, Amazon also announced a new set of Kindles in a product line that already accounts for 10% of Amazon’s revenue–more than $6 billion. And two of the three are a drop in price from the previous least-expensive Kindle, which was $114:

  • The next generation of the Kindle–$79
  • New touchscreen Kindle Touch–$99
  • Shipping November 21, Kindle Touch 3G with the free 3G like existing Kindles–$149

The $79 Kindle will be 30% lighter (fewer than 6 ounces) and 18% smaller–Amazon is calling it the “Kindle that fits in your pocket,” although with a 6″ display, I think they have larger pockets than I do.

They’ll also have X-Ray, a new feature that lets customers explore the “bones of the book.” With a single tap, readers can see all the passages across a book that mention ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places or topics that interest them, as well as more detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon’s community-powered encyclopedia.

The new Kindles, unlike the old ones, come with what Amazon calls “special offers and sponsored screensavers”–ads that appear when you’re not reading. There will also be offers from AmazonLocal, their daily deal service.

As a side note, this puts us a little off track on the theory that Kindles would be free by November. But Amazon has the content link that may finally make a truly successful business model for an inexpensive tablet.

You can pre-order the Kindle Fire today. It will ship November 15.