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Mental Case iPhone/iPod Review

Picture 26.jpg In May, 2008 I posted a review of Mental Case 1.2.2, an OS X flashcard application. While praising it for its design, excellent support for interval study and study on demand in its graded slideshow approach, coming from the perspective of students engaged in intensive language study I offered some criticism for its lack of support for three fields, lack of control over formatting, lack of true full-screen study, limited set management, limited keyboard control, and high price. I felt then, as I do now, that OS X application iFlash and the cross-platform application Anki are far better alternatives for language learners. However, the application is still one of the leading contenders in this field and now offers a powerful and reasonably priced client for the iPhone platform.

Below is a review of the iPhone and iPod Touch client that Mental Case has released. The review concludes that, with the exception of highly targeted applications such as Kanji Flip and other Andre Khromov applications, Mental Case for iPhone and iPod is currently one of the strongest offering for interval study on the mobile platform but hopes that certain refinements in the flashcard UI and Wi-fi synching features with the desktop will be made in future releases.Note: This review is primarily from the perspective of language learners. See the Terms page for an explanation of the technical terms used in these reviews. See the Basics page for a list of basic features found in flashcard applications useful to language learners.

Mental Case for iPhone and iPod Touch

Application Name: Flashcard Exchange presents Mental Case
iTunes Application Store Link: Mental Case
Version Reviewed: 2.0.3
Software License: Commercial (about $8, about $5 on sale)
Review Date: 2009.01.27
OS Tested: iPod Touch 2.2

Please read my earlier Mental Case review for information about the general approach of this application and more on the OS X desktop client of this flashcard application. Without that background some of the review below may be a bit bewildering as it assumes some familiarity with the desktop application.

The mobile edition of Mental Case offers five tabs which we will consider separately. The application is often slow to start up, but generally loads in between 4-8 seconds of waiting.

The “Cases” tab offers a location where one can add/edit/delete sets (Cases) and add/edit/delete cards. You cannot, however, indicate here that you want to schedule (or edit the schedule) a given case in the “Lesson” (which is the interval study component of the application). This can only be modified on the desktop client. This is frustrating when one has downloaded a new set from the Flashcard Exchange service provided and want to immediately begin studying on the road. The view tells you when the card was last studied, but not any other information about its interval stage, which is puzzling. Overall, however, the editing interface is a pleasure to work with and very well designed.

Through the “Study” tab, one may begin flashcard study. Select the case or the lesson button to begin studying the cards in it, conveniently shown with the total number of cards available to the right. This dives directly into flashcard study which is discussed below. You may also, in this panel, indicate that you wish to reverse the sides of the cards, and/or shuffle the slides being studied.

A third panel offers powerful access to the huge online flashcard database “Flashcard Exchange.” While the online service usually requires a paid subscription, owners of Mental Case may download sets from the service for free. Unfortunately, downloaded sets are not included in the lesson by default and one must synch these cards to the desktop client to set up interval study for the downloaded cards. Flashcard Exchange offers perhaps the largest collection of downloadable flashcard sets online and though the cards are of mixed quality (we will consider this online service directly in a separate review at some later point) the inclusion of this feature is an impressive achievement, goes a long way in helping Mental Case compete with the Deck Library of iFlash, the Pre-made decks of Anki, and the Study Stack integration of gFlashPro.

What are you Synching About?

The fourth “Synch” tab puts the application into a waiting mode where it is ready to receive a synch command from the desktop client. It is very hard to get synch right on iPhones and iPod Touches so first I should say that it is excellent that Mental Case includes the synching feature at all. However, it would be much nicer if the whole synching process was much less convoluted. The developer could arrange automatic synching from the portable device or allow the user to simply open the synch tab and press “Synch” with the actual synch content being determined by a set of preferences on either the device or the desktop client. Instead, the synch process is an extremely slow and sometimes nightmarish, ambiguous, and convoluted process: 1) Go to the synch tab on your iPhone or iPod Touch 2) On the desktop client choose “Synch with iPhone/iPod Touch…” from the File menu (there is no keyboard shortcut, which is annoying if one is to do this every day) 3) A synch window appears with the device name, and three options below including “copy new notes and cases to my Mac,” “Remove notes and cases removed” and “Update notes that were edited” on the iPhone/iPod Touch. However, even after choosing among these options, you are then asked to 4) Select from cases you wish to transfer between the iPhone and iPod touch.

This approach to synch is far too convoluted, time consuming, and does not even speak to the incredible time consuming process of the synch itself, which in my experience crashed occasionally and resulted in duplicate cases or interval study data not getting transferred properly. This is not Mac simplicity at work. Also despite the fact I dealt with no images or sounds, synching a set containing a few hundred cards took far longer than one might suspect, certainly longer than the transmission to the iPod touch of several dozen content filled emails contained in the notes of to-do items being transferred by the GTD application OmniFocus, for example.

However, the basic architecture is in place, and if the user interface experience of the synch is completely rewritten to focus on both the speed and a better user experience, this could be a powerful and useful feature used by long-term students of language. One might start by moving all the options to a preferences pane, or perhaps, if I have downloaded a new case from flashcard exchange on the iPod/iPhone or made a new one myself, Mental Case ought to be smart enough to ask me, “You appear to have a new case on the iPod, do you wish to transfer it to the desktop and include it in future synchs?” Whatever the approach, it must be more intuitive and simple to use than the current one. The issue of the slow transfer speed is perhaps the harder challenge to face but is part of a general slowness of the desktop Mental Case application that I will mention in an update to my review.

Help

Finally, a “Help” pane in the mobile application provides a number of web links to help. It is nice to provide these links, which some iPhone flashcard applications such as Lexicon, StudyCards, leave out altogether, but, unlike the online but in-application help offerings of gFlashPro one is kicked out of the Mental Case application to Safari. Also, like gFlashPro’s help offerings it is only accessible with an internet connection. This contrasts poorly with the excellent in-application help of Kanji Flip and other Andre Khromov applications which serves an excellent model to other developers. These help files can be small and there is no reason not to embed them in the application.

Flashcard Study on the iPhone/iPod Touch

Mental Case gives you a nice clean graded slideshow flashcard experience. Studying from the “Lesson” uses the interval study approach found in the desktop, but, unfortunately, the lack of any way to view interval study statistics on the mobile client leaves the user somewhat in the dark until they synch with their desktop. Flashcards can be beautifully shown in landscape or portrait modes and the font is large and clean. Formatting of the font and size can be done in the settings of the application accessible in the general settings of one’s iPhone or iPod Touch (there is greater control over card formatting on the mobile edition than on the desktop client!). One nice feature is that the background of the card can be slightly different in color so that one recognizes what side of the card one is looking at immediately. This is a wonderful approach that other flashcard developers might consider.

It is absolutely essential to get the flashcard environment right, however, since this is where the user will spend the vast majority of their time when studying. I quickly found myself frustrated and annoyed by the flashcard graded slideshow of the application and I don’t think I could tolerate using the application in the long term for two reasons:

1) Like a number of other iPhone/iPod flashcard applications such as StudyCards and Lexicon, the transitions are way too slow. The flip takes way too much time and the slide is also slow. One can marvel in the beauty of the visual effect the first few times, but after a few hundred flips and swipes it gets really annoying. There needs to be a way to turn these annoying transitions off. The time it takes really adds up over time and it is a very noticeable contrast with the lightning speed of the swipes of Lima Sky’s Kanji, and the immediate transitions of Kanji Flip.

2) When I mark a given word correct or incorrect in Mental Case, I must sit and continue to stare at the card until Mental Case has “timed out” for a card and either flips or moves to the next card. Mental Case thinks it knows what is good for me. When I tell it I don’t know a word or that I know a word, it takes its sweet time. This was so annoying I immediately abandoned use of the application. I want to be in charge and I want flashcard applications to do my bidding. My feeling is that if I’m too stupid to give a card its due consideration, that is my problem. The default behavior (or at least an option should be provided) should be that marking a card correct/incorrect either a) shows the answer or b) moves to the next card immediately depending on context. However, I don’t know if the developer will be changing this any time soon since we have agreed to disagree on this issue. The developer, Drew McCormack, who is always willing to hear from users about ways to improve the application stands form on this issue and defends his approach with this explanation:

We thought about this a lot when we did it. Should the card stay on the screen. We concluded that it should: for a start, you may know immediately it is wrong, but want to study/think about it before going on. Also, what if you mark it wrong, and then rethink, and decide that actually you knew it well enough. There is a value judgement there, and the user should have a chance to back out (undo). So I like the way Mental Case does it, and dislike the approach of other apps.

I hope that the developer will reconsider. In fact, I would recommend that most flashcard applications consider the following approach, which in over a decade of studying four languages with flashcard software, I strongly believe to be the most efficient for high-volume and long-term study: When showing one side of a card a tap anywhere should show the other side (with the remaining fields or the next field if a three-step card option is available). A second tap (or click on a desktop) should mark the card correct and move immediately to the next card. There should be a button somewhere on the screen that allows the user to mark the card incorrect but it might be located in a corner so that the “correct” surface dominates the screen. Over time, users will get more and more words correct and will want to give each card less and less consideration unless it “drops” from memory. The UI ought to take this evolution into account and also keep high-volume users in mind.

It would also be nice if the buttons for correct and incorrect were not at the base of the screen, a common UI mistake of developers that leads to strain for high-volume users. When holding an iPhone/iPod Touch, the user’s thumb can more easily reach the upper half of the screen but must stretch their thumb further to reach the lower portion of the screen while balancing the device more precariously.

Overall, however, Mental Case for iPhone and iPod Touch currently leads the pack as the strongest interval study offering in a general flashcard application. Dedicated students of specific languages (especially Kanji characters in Japanese) may prefer the equally powerful but more targeted approach of Andre Khromov’s applications such as Kanji Flip but until iFlash Touch comes out of beta, the only other major competitor on the iPhone or iPod Touch with this kind of interval study features is found in iAnki, which comes nowhere near Mental Case as a full iPhone/iPod Touch client application.

Import: Wi-Fi synch
Export: Wi-Fi synch
Non-Roman Scripts: No problem
Modes of Study: Graded Slideshow
Media and Frills: Full Media support

Entry Creation: Good, but only two fields
Entry Editing: Good
Set Organization: Can create, modify and delete sets.
Flashcard Study: Fair, Cycle elimination but slow transitions and must wait to “time out” between cards.
Interval Study: Good, but finite number of stages, cannot schedule cases for inclusion on the mobile edition, only on the desktop client.
Formatting: Excellent. Both font and size can be customized
Design and Feel: Good
Statistics: Poor

Golden Coxcombs: 7/10 Powerful but flashcard UI eventually annoying for regular users. Possibly the best current interval study offering for this mobile platform.

Updated Review Comments on Mental Case 1.4.3 for the Desktop

I want to add some comments to complement my review of the desktop version of Mental Case which can be found in the next posting.

4 Comments

  1. I’m the developer of Mental Case. Thanks for the review. I think there is some fair criticism in it, and I won’t go into a lengthy discussion on every point.

    I just wanted to mention a few things. First, although you can allow slideshows to proceed automatically based on the times you have set on your Mac, you can also override this and move to the next card manually — you do not have to wait for the card to turn automatically if you don’t wish to. You can even pause the slideshow and navigate completely manually.

    Regarding ‘eye candy’: There will always be disagreement about this. Should there be transitions, or not. We think this ‘eye candy’ is very important to the look and feel of an app. That’s why we have dynamic transitions, that also serve to show you what is happening (eg card flips versus slides). Apple take the same approach: Can you turn off the transitions in Apple’s Photo app, for example? No, because they are essential to the look, feel, and behavior of the app.

    The only other thing I want to mention is the philosophy we adopted in developing the iPhone client: We decided we would not duplicate the whole Mac app on the iPhone. We choose a small subset of functionality that we thought would work well on a touch device, and implemented that. So we don’t allow you to mess with your schedule, and more advanced things like that. You handle all of that on the Mac. It is basically exactly the same strategy used by Apple with iTunes, iPhoto, etc.

    Thanks!
    Drew McCormack
    MacCoreMac Software

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink
  2. K. M. Lawson wrote:

    Thanks for your response Drew on these three major points. My take would be:

    1) You can move to the next card with another swipe but that is an added motion that is unnecessary. You shouldn’t need two motions per card. Sounds like no big deal, but I flash for about one hour per day in several languages and it really makes a difference for high-volume study.

    2) There is a difference between iPhoto and Apple Mail. Your application is neither but of the two, it is closer to the latter. The former is primarily for entertainment, the latter is (at least for some people) about getting things done. While it is great if doing flashcards is less painful through a good UI, any eye candy which impairs functionality or efficiency is razor-studded candy.

    3) Your last point is fair – but given that new sets are being downloaded via Flashcard Exchange – having to synch them, then set the lesson prefs for the case seems a bit unreasonable. Generally speaking though, I think your general principle of a selection of features is perfectly sound. We just disagree on what should/shouldn’t be included.

    Thanks for your hard work and good luck in future dev.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  3. K. M. Lawson wrote:

    Here is a Mac hint using Interface Builder to add a shortcut in Mental Case for synching. Haven’t tried it but I can’t see why it wouldn’t work:

    http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20090121194001675

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  4. blackpony wrote:

    I use xCards. Love it!

    Web link: http://www.arlexsoft.com
    iTunes link: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=330640460&mt=8
    Features:
    - generates cards at 42 languages
    - Cards can be exported and imported to Google Spreadsheet
    - pre-made cards available online

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink