Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A Grey Matter Challenge: Brain Training Applications for Windows Mobile Devices

After their quick popularizations, thanks to a long series of Nintendo DS titles, the brain training games seems to be gaining space within the Windows Mobile platform. From basic to advance levels there’s an increasingly variety of realises aiming to transform PDAs and Smartphone into workout machines for your grey matter.

Brain School Brain Trainer
, by Mastersoft has 20 different puzzles (involving concentration, analytical reasoning, numeracy, etc), each at 5 increasing levels of difficulty. Like on a school, you have to work your way up from year 1 passing exams and collecting A Plus stars as you go. There are 4 years to pass and 100 stars to collect! The navigation is simple and on-screen instructions easy to follow. There are versions for PPC and Smartphones (WM 5.0) both at £10.22. Trial versions are also available for download.

Advanced Brain Trainer - Deluxe Version, by Filao follows the same style as the DS trainers. It offers 9 kinds of exercises, such as Speed count, Drawing over, Memo square and Shape counter. There are 3 game modes (Exam, Practice and Arcade), which can be set to different difficult levels. The questions are introduced by a “brain coach”, who can be chosen by the user. The coaches can also analyze your results, motivate and guide you through your mind's enhancement. It can be downloaded for £10.24 and it is compatible with Windows Mobile 5.0 for Smartphones and Pocket PCs. Demo versions are offered.

Spb Brain Evolution for Smartphone includes 10 development mini-games and provides two independent game modes, one for measuring the user’s brain status, and one for improving the user’s abilities. Some of the mini-games offered are Arithmetic, Quadronica, Memorics, Encyclopaedia and Sudoku. It is compatible with WM 6 / 5 / 2003 and costs around £10.00 (US$19.95).

Resco's BrainGain
for Pocket PC (WM 6 and 5) offers a collection of nearly 40 brain training programs divided in memory, numerical and analytical categories. The style also reminds the DS training games, with a character presenting the questions and functions to evaluate the users’ mental capabilities. It also offers a comprehensive guide and it’s optimized for one-hand use. A demo is available and the full version costs £10.24.

If you are into games, one of these application might be a good choice; no matter if you want to “improve power of concentration, memory and reflexes” or just relax, kill some time and have fun.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

News on the go: Are PDA and Smartphone versions of newspapers really handheld friendly?

Reading the daily edition of your favourite newspaper on a small handheld device is certainly a very convenient way to keep up with current events (and escape the hassle of folding and unfolding large sheets of paper while commuting). But despite the increasing popularity, it seems that these mobile news editions still lack in basic design and usability principles that could improve a lot the users’ experience.

Media companies all over the world seem be targeting heavily this market for "news services on the go". Basically all the big well known newspapers and other journalism companies already have made available their PDA/Smartphone editions (or news channels), with especially created mobile content. Some examples are The Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, BBC, CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

There are 2 major companies providing the technology for this: AvantGo (which offers a large selection of free content) and Roundpoint (with a smaller number of publications offered via paid subscription). Both technologies are compatible with Windows Mobile devices and the content can be downloaded, either OTA or via synchronisation (between the handled and a PC connected to the web). The process is not difficult, but sometimes it can be slow.

Up to here, there’s no problem; the setback is that accessing some of these mobile editions isn't such a joy. Based in HTML, the pages incorporate several elements from the web which on small screens do not seem to be well optimized.

A recent academic research evaluated major mobile news services available in the UK and noticed that all of them show some degree of design and usability problems. On the whole, menu items and commands are too close too each other and thus easy mistaken by the stylus; editorial elements that could improve readability are underused (i.e. subheads, summaries, etc), as well are hardware functions, which constrains one-hand navigation with. Another important issue is that texts tend to be too long, requiring extensive and tiresome vertical scrolling (and there are no features such markers or widgets to aid with that).

The ITN news channel (from the ITV group) is an example of poor design: The page elements are cluttered; links and pictures are badly positioned and there is not even a logo or name identifying the publication. The Guardian is another channel not very pleasurable to navigate, especially on a Smartphone. Page items are
too close too each and there are still ads and other unnecessary elements.

The BBC News channel is not bad. It seems to be more organised than the others so far, but it has too much information displayed together and no white spaces are used to give a rest to the readers’ eyes. Another annoyance is that there are no shortcuts to move directly from one article to other, so the user is always forced to go back and forward to the main menu.

The PDA version of The Times manages to deliver a slightly better navigation experience. It has still some issues, but it is doing well in some points. The main menu is easy to visualise and the headlines are well spaced. It also uses visual cues, such as bullet lists and subheads in bold, as well as shortcuts. Other that doesn’t seem bad is the mobile version of the news agency Reuters, which uses a clean layout and good colour selection.

Overall it appears that some of the major design problems exist because media companies in general seem to be reutilizing the same material that is published in their newspapers and news websites for the creation of their mobile editions. Therefore, particular design solutions, respecting the physical and contextual characteristics of PDAs and Smartphones, end up being neglected.

It's a little disappointing, but since handhelds are a fast-growing medium it might be just a step away for them to be no longer regarded as secondary mediums for the delivery of news.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How to transform your Windows Mobile device into a personal travel assistant

If you are one of these people always on the move, why not explore the potentialities of your Pocket PC or Smartphone? Clever applications can help you to convert your WM device into the ideal travel organiser and companion.

The latest version of WorldMate Professional, created by MobiMate is an all-in-one travel application. It offers most of the basic information that people is likely to need while away, especially on a business trip. There are 5 world clocks, a world map (with cities localizer), global 5 days weather forecast, a currency converter, measurements conversion and a table displaying clothing sizes in different countries.

The Pocket PC version also brings a Tip/Tax Calculator and a Travel Itinerary Manager (where you can record details from flights, hotels, car rentals and meetings). All these services are free of charge, but if you want, you can subscribe for the PRO version (US$39.95 for Smartphone and US$74.95 for Pocket PCs), which offers extra services such as Satellite Weather Imagery and Real-time Flight status (covering most of the airlines).

Overall the MobiMate is easy to use. It has lots of comprehensive graphics, works on a multilingual platform (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish) and the user can also select some of the functions to be always displayed on the Home Screen.
The basic version can be downloaded for free at the MobiMate website.

Pocket Earth 3.4 (by Informap Technology Center Inc) is another clever application that can help you to find your way around the globe. It displays an interactive set of 3D maps of the Earth, with VGA resolution (640x480). The user can locate cities by name and measure distances from multi-points. There are also colourful atlas maps in different formats (e.g. physical, political, etc), as well as sun and moon info. In addition the application brings useful information about several cities of the world, population and time. Other advanced features are GPS support and real-time weather forecast. It works with Windows Mobile Pocket PCs (2000 and all later) and can be bought online for around £10 (US$ 19). A trial version is available.

Not as complete, but also informative is the latest version of the Kai's City Info (made by Kaisoft /Pocketkai). It comprises as database with 472 Cities of the world. For each of them it gives information such as time-zone index, phone codes, airport codes, latitude/longitude, summertime, location on the map and GPS position (when available in the device). It also calculates the distance between two cities and time differences. It works with all versions of Windows Mobile for Pocket PC (from 2000 to WM6) and can be downloaded for around £5 (US$ 10).

Even if you are not on the road very often it still worthy to have a look in any of these applications, since you can get a lot of interesting information from them.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Next generation of UI applications adding a cool-looking to Windows Mobile devices

A while ago the Windows Mobile team announced the creation of “Neo”, an innovative user interface for an upcoming T-Mobile Smartphone (Shadow). This imbedded application converts the homescreen (“Today”) shipped by Microsoft into a cool-looking page, full of plug-ins, which animates when the user navigates up and down.

Now it seems that a new trend has started, as more of these UI applications start to become available, promising to add more interactivity and fresh appearance to the static Windows Mobile interface (that hasn't changed much since the Pocket PC 2nd Edition/2003).

Spb Mobile Shell adds a Vista inspired look to Windows Smartphones and Pocket PC interface. The initial screen can be customized to use for example analogue or digital clocks, display chosen elements and change between different colour themes. The menus are designed for one hand navigation and contain not only programs, but also actions. The Vista style icons and animation make it look really nice too. This application costs around £15 (US$ 30) and can be downloaded at the spb software house website or at the O2 XDA and Dell Axim pages.

Home”, is a new application from “Pointui” (pronounced point-you-i), which transforms the Today screen of Pocket PCs into an animated interface, very similar to the iPhone. Each of the Today items (clock, date/calendar, tasks, etc.) occupies one full page, and there are also pages for new functions such as wheather forecast and animated launchers for applications. The user can control it via touch or thumb with the directional button. It is easy to use and looks great. The software is a BETA version; compatible with Windows Mobile 6, 5 and 2003 and it can be downloaded for free at the Pointui site.

After checking on any of these cool applications you’ll realise that there’s no more reason to be ashamed with the current appearance your Windows Mobile UI.