Wednesday, June 26, 2013

App Review: Audubon Birds for iPhone by Green Mountain Digital Reference

Smartphones are great. Not just in the overall sense, but for birding they are indispensable, which is funny because I rarely see people get theirs out for anything while I go birding (perhaps it is an age thing, since many birders I run into are older). They are also not cheap.

Ok, in the grand scheme of things the cost for a birding app of $15 - $20 is minimal compared to what you get out of it, but psychologically it is hard to drop that much money on something that you can't really browse beforehand (yeah, yeah, there are 'lite' apps of them I know) and that is not a real, substantial thing like a book. I understand. So when I looked around a few weeks ago and saw one on sale, I jumped at it.

I am fully aware of the number of unupdated apps
This is the Audubon Birds iPhone app by Green Mountain Digital Reference. You can get the full app like I did, or there are other more specific apps (like California or Central Park in New York).

Overall, the app works really well, with the ability to search of birds by name, shape, and other things like taxonomical group. Of course you have to be down with the latest updates on the taxonomy such that you know that Barn Owls are not with regular owls and Osprey are by themselves, and you have to know that searching for a 'flycatcher' or 'warbler' group will get you nowhere unless you know to look for tyrant flycatchers or wood warblers. A few alternative names of groups (especially since these are the common names, not the specific scientific names) would have been nice, especially for beginners who can't find any sparrow groups.

Of course they would probably be well served to just browse by name or shape, which are good options it gives. Another good thing for beginners is that for every bird species they also have a 'similar bird' tab, so you can easily check without backing out and going to search. These similar birds also appear to be controlled for location, so that they don't suggest birds that don't really overlap in range (obviously range maps are included and easily accessed for each species).

Where the app really shines is that it includes sounds.

No, it is not a coincidence that I chose a flycatcher as a screenshot here, because without this app I would have been lost among the Willow and Acadian and Alder and Least Flycatchers this year. Yeah, I can try to remember "fitzbew" and "chebak", but I have found these descriptions don't always really translate well into what the actual song sounds like (Easter Wood Peewee being a glaring exception). But when I hear something and pull out my app, I can listen immediately to it and compare and get the ID. It also helps me learn the songs, especially since I can browse and listen any time I want to learn them (instead of having to be near a computer or a CD with them).

The app is not without its issues, though. It uses photos of birds, and has all the positives and negatives of any guide that relies on photos. Sure, they give an actual honest and real image of the bird, but they don't always capture what makes it different, and the quality of photos can vary. I guess I am spoiled by Sibley and his excellent and useful illustrations (I'll get and review that app soon enough). But this is a minor quibble, since the app is secondary to my field guide when I want to really get an identification down by visual cues.

The main problem I have with the app is that it tries to force you to sign up for other things, such that whenever you open the app you get this screen:

I want you to notice the options are "sign in", "create an account" and "you should create an account". That 'cancel' on the bottom? Yeah, that is only skips the screen for this one time only. You get this screen begging you to sign up for their NatureShare community every single time you open the app. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I've tried to turn it off, but there is no obvious way to do it. This is annoying for many reasons, but I'll fixate on two:

1) I already bought the app, stop trying to advertise other things for me to get. Sure, you aren't trying to sell me things (like that damn Bookworm app which puts similar roadblock ads in it despite me having bought the damn app), but I paid for the app so I shouldn't have to deal with this type of crap.

2) It slows down my ability to identify a bird. When I open the app, I want to quickly identify a bird that is probably singing right in front of me. I don't want to have to wait for this screen to load, then look down to make sure I hit that really small "cancel" hiding away at the bottom (and I've hit their "Reasons to sign up" many times trying to cancel, which is annoying). I want to know what that damn flycatcher is!

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is freaking annoying. Sure, the sounds are great and the app overall works fine, but unless I find a way to disable that roadblack ad it insists on putting up every time I open the app, I am hesitant to recommend this app fully.

If it is on sale? Grab it for a couple bucks and deal with the annoyingness. For full price? Look for other less annoying apps.

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