Picky Kid Rating: 2.2
In Piano Ball, kids can attempt to play simple songs on a brightly colored keyboard-like device. The “Ball” in the app’s name refers to the way that you select songs and styles by spinning things that look like ping-pong balls, which is a fun and innovative way to navigate… a bright spot in this app that’s not likely to turn kids into concert pianists — unless it’s improved, at least.
When you open the app (or return to it, since this app does not save your “spot”), you’ll see a splash screen with a cute little animation. When that’s complete, you’ll come to a home screen, where you can select between two different styles of “keyboard”. There are a few other more subtle things to tap on the home screen, including a heart (to get support for the app or to email a friend), the developer’s logo (to visit their Web site), and an i button for info and settings. The heart and the logo require a 1-second tap and hold for access, a good thing to keep kids out of these areas. It’s a bit strange though, that you have to tap and hold the icon to get back to the home screen. A simple tap would be more intuitive, not to mention quicker!
The info/settings screen is worth a mention — it has a lot of information about how to use the app, including all the different actions you can do with the various balls. They’re rather complex — and you’d likely never figure it all out without reading these instructions. That’s a detriment for an app aimed at preschoolers because not all parents will take the time to read. The only true settings in the app are whether or not to display the tune title (um… if you don’t display it, you can’t tell what song you selected, so we’re not sure why this is an option), and a language selector for the voiceovers. You can pick English, Swedish, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, French or Polish. As far as we can tell, all are equally dull. The English version of the voice sounds computer-generated. (It’s harder for us to tell in the other languages.) Changing the language does not affect the song titles or the written instructions.
All right, back to the home screen… Tap a keyboard to start playing! You can choose one with wide keys in two rows, or a more traditional style with skinny keys in a single row. If you tap the Piano Ball logo at the top of the screen (very tempting because of that spinning ball!), you’ll automatically start playing the two-row keyboard.
Both keyboards have a set of four balls that serve as selectors for color, song, rainbow spectrum, and instrument. The balls are one of the coolest things about the app. You can spin them in their sockets to select what you want — this is a clever interface and it works pretty well. But the combination of things you can choose is a little strange, in our opinion. Since this primarily is a music toy, why bother with changing the color of the keys and saying “yellow”? Especially when there’s another way to change the color of the keys with the rainbow ball…
What you are probably going to want to do first is select a song. Do this by turning the second ball (the one with the smiley face or music notes on it) until you see the name of a song you want to play. Stars will appear over the keys you should tap to play the song. If you don’t know the song well (or even if you think you do!) you won’t get the rhythm right without some practice. When you’ve completed the song, you’ll get a cheer, and then the song will play how it’s “supposed” to sound. It would be nice if there was a way to play the model before attempting the song so that you had some idea of its rhythm.
There’s a special mode for song selection called “Toddler Mode” — you can select it by turning the second ball so that the green smiley face is showing. In Toddler Mode, it doesn’t matter what key is tapped, the correct note will be played, making a nicer-sounding song, even though the rhythm is still dependent upon the timing of taps. One odd thing about Toddler Mode is that you cannot select the song. Instead, when you complete one song, you’ll be automatically advanced to another. (Also, you will not hear the “model” songs played.) Another odd thing about Toddler Mode is that it starts with different songs in the two different keyboard modes, and it has an extra song (one with a Polish name that flashed by so quickly we could not write it down!) that you cannot access from the regular song-selection menu.
There are lots of things that you can do in the keyboard screens that are not obvious at all. For example, you can “lock” various features by holding down specific balls. Also, shaking the iPad will display an instrument on the screen, say its name, and then play a sample of its sound. I won’t be telling B about this, because a toddler shaking an iPad is even scarier than a toddler turning it around… Which, by the way, you will probably have to do, because this app doesn’t rotate with the accelerometer.
It’s quite difficult to get back to the home screen from the keyboard screens. There’s a back button in the upper left-hand corner, but it overlaps a key and when you tap it, you usually just end up playing that note. Through trial-and-error, we discovered that if you tap it twice quickly you will usually go back to the home screen. But there should be more separation between the back button and the keyboard to avoid this frustration.
In terms of design and sound, Piano Ball is a mixed bag. The color palette is bright and primary — helpful for engaging for young kids, and the elements, though somewhat simple, are well-rendered. The animations are generally quite good, but sometimes the transitions between scenes are a bit choppy. The instrument sounds are fairly good, but we would prefer a more realistic sounding piano — this one sounds more like a toy. The voiceovers for color and instrument names, are flat and dull (computer-generated, perhaps?), and so out of place that were were startled when we first heard one when randomly spinning the color ball.
This app feels like it was conceived and designed more as a way to showcase effects and animations than as a kid’s educational app. To use all the features of the app — in fact, even to select a song — reading is required. Younger kids can have fun experimenting, or playing in toddler mode if a helper sets it up for them, but may be frustrated by the challenging user experience.
All in all, Piano Ball is a music app that has some potential, but is hard to use in its current state. We’d like to see it simplified and made more intuitive for kids by adding more visual cues and changing some of the ball actions. For the time being, you’ll need to help your toddler navigate this one.
[The developer of this app requested a Picky Kid Review. A small fee was paid to expedite this review.]Review: Piano Ball iPad App,
Played on: iPad 2, iOS6