If you’re only using your iPhone to make calls and send text messages, you’ve not even begun to realise the potential of this brilliant little device. One of its greatest features is the App Store, a section of iTunes brimming with exciting and useful bits of software. But which are most useful for us home cinema and hi-fi nuts? Allow us to offer a helping hand with a selection of some of the best apps around.
Of course, not all of these apps are perfect, but they still offer something unique that makes their inclusion worthwhile. Where we’ve found faults we’ve mentioned them, and the best thing about the App Store is that the software contained within it can be updated and then downloaded directly to your iPhone. iPod Touch owners can join in the fun, too, though not all these apps will work in the same way – one requires the iPhone's mic, for example.
You can download apps from iTunes in exactly the same way you download songs. Simply open the iTunes Store and you can search for an app by name, or you can click on ‘App Store’ and start browsing. Of course, the iPhone being so well-connected means you can also access the App Store on the device itself, downloading software directly to the phone’s front end.
So, without further ado...
Decibel by Gadget Frontier - £0.59
There are loads of sound level pressure metres available on the App Store, but this is the one we like most, due to its clear layout, decent accuracy and very low price. Simply open the app, turn the phone upside-down so that the microphones are facing upwards (the screen will rotate automatically), and use the analogue or digital readouts to trim your speaker levels. The digital display gives you peak, average and maximum readings, and they’re exceptionally easy to read. There’s no fast or slow setting, but the speed it takes measurements is pretty much spot-on for our use, and results are very close indeed to those of our dedicated SPL metre.
Tunin.FM iCar Radio by Mobilaria - £2.39
Again, there’s no shortage of internet radio apps available for the iPhone, but there are vast differences between them in terms of usability, stations and sound quality. In fact, this one isn’t even the best sounding, but it does have the best signal retention. It uses extra compression to keep your station playing, even when you’re on the move or in a low-signal area, and we’re prepared to accept a little bit of splashiness for that. This is also the only radio app we found that had the full quota of BBC stations. Menus and graphics are very smart, and you can add stations to your favourites. In fact, other than a slightly vague system for browsing, there’s little to complain about, particularly at this price.
The Stanley Level by The Stanley Works– Free
There seems to be a lot of derision concerning the iPhone’s numerous spirit level apps, but we reckon that’s a bit unnecessary. Sure, if you’re building a house, the iPhone is not the tool to use to make sure everything’s level, but if you’re simply checking how horizontal your speaker or wall-mounted TV is, it’ll do the job just fine. The Stanley Level is the best of the bunch in our opinion. It takes two measurements for calibration, but the surface you use for this must be as level as possible. You can then go forth and check the levels of everything in your home, using the bubble graphic and digital readout. Simple, really.
Torch by Savy Soda – Free
You know what it’s like: you need to have a look at the connections on the back of your AV receiver, realise it’s a bit gloomy back there, find your torch in the drawer under the sink, click the button and realise the batteries are dead. And what if you haven’t got and replacements? Well, this whole sorry tale can be avoided if you simply download a free light app for your iPhone. This one is exceptionally simple. You’re greeted by a torch icon when you open the app, which you press to turn your screen white. Although you don’t want to use it to navigate outside in the dark, Torch is brighter than most and perfect for system tweaking.
Radio Times by tvCompass Inc - £1.79
Start by telling this app where you live and how you get your TV (Freeview, Freesat, Sky, or Virgin), and it provides a clear EPG, showing what’s currently playing and how long it’s been playing for. You can skip along to see what’s on later, and there’s a ‘Choices’ tab containing the well-respected magazine’s picks of the day, including full reviews. There’s also a ‘Films’ tab that unsurprisingly displays films only. You can even make a show a favourite, which creates a list of every time it appears during the week, on all channels, in the ‘My Shows’ tab. You can customise the channel line-ups, but some of Sky’s HD offerings are missing. If you’re not a Sky customer though, this is a must-have.
Sky+ by BSkyB – Free
If you’ve registered for Remote Record (it’s a quick and simple setup via your Sky box’s menus) you can login to this app to see a stripped-down EPG and set programs to record. It can be extremely useful, but it’s a bit too stripped-down, especially if you’re an HD fan. The boxes that contain each channel label are too small, cutting off the HD at the end of a channel name. There’s no way to access a list of just HD channels, either, and you can’t set a series link, so although this is a nice start, we’re hoping for a fully-featured update sooner rather than later.
Sonos Controller by Sonos, Inc – Free
As the name suggests, this app’s really only useful if you’re an owner of a Sonos networked music system, but if you are, this is one app you shouldn’t do without. It basically takes all of the functionality of the dedicated remote, but is even nicer and easier to use thanks to the iPhone’s brilliant touchscreen. So you can browse your music collection and Napster, and control the music in all of your zones, all accompanied by large, clear, vibrant artwork. It’s actually better than the standard controller, which costs £280, and that makes it a seriously huge bargain.
Shazam by Shazam Entertainment Ltd – Free
What a useful app this is! Hear a piece of music you like but don’t know the name of it? Simply press tag, point your mic at the source and within a few seconds Shazam will figure out what it is, and even give you a link to buy it from iTunes if it’s available. It’s not always perfect, but it’s right more often than wrong, even picking out Wake Up Time by Tom Petty through the acerbic dialogue of the Californication TV show. Moreover, it’s free, so you’ve got no reason not to give it a go.
Test Your Hearing by Novasa - £0.59
This is intended more as a diverting bit of fun than a serious app, but some people might find it interesting. You put on a pair of headphones and the app plays a number of high- and low-pitched tones – you simply press the button when you hear something and at the end it gives you your hearing age. It’s clear and easy to use, and the test takes just 30 seconds. Of course, if you want a proper hearing test, a trip to the Doctor is the only way to get it right.
Remote by Apple Inc. – Free
It’s fair to say that if you’re an iPhone user, you’re also, at least to a degree, an iTunes user. Well, this app connects to your iTunes library via your wi-fi network, allowing you to control and play your library from anywhere in the house. Play a track and the artwork appears on your iPhone’s screen in large, vibrant fashion. What’s more, it’ll work with Apple TV, and if you’ve got computers or Apple TVs in a couple of rooms, you’ve effectively got a Sonos-style multi-zone system, complete with a touchscreen controller. Very neat indeed.
myMovies by Netwalk - £1.19
This is simply a list manager for your movie collection. You can add a movie using the linked IMDB database, so it automatically adds artwork, synopsis and details. However, the display isn’t neat enough, and the small, clumsy nature of the artwork layout is disappointing. You can specify the format of the movie, including Blue-Ray (sic), but this makes no odds to the way the disc is displayed, and there’s no way to filter your movies by format. The inclusion of a wish list is fine, but far from spectacular. Unfortunately this is the best disc library app available – fingers crossed someone beats it soon.
Movies by Flixster – Free
Despite being distinctly US-centric, this Movies app is rather useful. On the main page it lists films opening this week as well as the current box-office favourites. Because it’s an American app, the release dates often don’t apply to the UK, but you can still click on a film, which provides a second screen giving you movie info and even a trailer that plays directly on the phone. What’s more, if you click on ‘Showtimes’ it’ll bring up the up-to-date times that the film’s playing in your local cinema, based on your current location, and this bit does work for us here in Blighty. Hopefully there’ll be a fully localised version available very soon.
RTA by Studio Six Digital - £5.99
Studio Six Digital is a company that specializes in professional-grade audio apps for the iPhone, offering a number of pieces of software for all types of measurement and calibration. Here, RTA stands for Real Time Analyzer, and it’s designed for speaker testing, room tuning and acoustical analysis. One of the most interesting features is a pink noise generator – you plug the iPhone into your amp and it sends out full-band pink noise. If your system response is flat, the graph will be, too. To be perfectly honest, most modern AV amps have automatic, room-based equalisation, but if yours doesn’t, or if you just fancy some in-depth manual tweaking, you should give RTA a shot.
Speaker Pop by Studio Six Digital - £2.39
This is another, more focussed app from Studio Six Digital, and is designed purely for checking the polarity of your speakers. To do this you need to feed a signal into your system. This can be done by connecting your iPhone directly or burning it to a CD or DVD. Once the pop’s being outputted, you select the speaker type (woofer, midrange or tweeter) and aim the mic at the driver. A big ‘+’ will appear onscreen if your speaker’s connected correctly, and a ‘–‘ will appear if it’s out of phase. In testing we found it to be extremely accurate, but it’s probably only really useful for people with wiring so complicated that they can’t simply follow it from source to speaker.