An iPad game that represents the newest way to introduce kids to engineering, plus software to fill forms and help with online research
Autodesk TinkerBox 1.2
Better known for its CAD, drawing and video software, Autodesk has now taken a step into gaming with a free engineering and physics game for Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch – there is also an HD version for the iPad – called TinkerBox. While the game is meant to be fun, it also has creative and educational aspects – not only must players understand geometry and mechanics, but each constructional element (such as motors, conveyors and different kinds of switch) also includes a basic explanation of how it works.
TinkerBox is in the mould of earlier games such as the Incredible Machine series, popular in the 1990s, and more recent Flash and Java-based physics puzzles like Fantastic Contraption. It has a more realistic feel though, and a big library of game elements, from weights, springs, levers and winches, to ropes and scissors to cut them with – yes, some Heath Robinson-style contraptions really are possible, although sad to say TinkerBox currently lacks some of his less Newtonian elements, such as mice, parrots and burning candles.
It also offers a creative and social aspect as a kind of virtual Meccano or Lego Technic. That is because, as well as solving puzzles, there is an Invent mode, which lets you use it to build structures or inventions, then upload for others to see, experiment with or expand upon.
Once you have gone through the lesson scenes, which introduce you to some of the game elements and how to use them, the initial TinkerBox game levels are relatively simple – roll the ball past obstacles into the basket, or drop the box onto the switch, for example – but they require more complex inventions at each stage, and they involve basic physics as well as engineering. They also allow for plenty of experimenting, or trial-and-error, and you can pan and zoom across to see bigger puzzles or build bigger inventions.
At the time of writing there were only two game levels, called The Lab and Steel Mill, with a total of just over a dozen puzzle stages, each of which must be completed before the next is accessible. More puzzle sets are labelled as 'Coming soon' – given that the game is already at version 1.2, this is something Autodesk needs to get working on. Ports to other platforms have been requested by potential users too, but so far it is iOS-only.
Siber Systems Roboform 7 Pro
Free or £19.99
For most of us, the fact that the majority of browsers will remember usernames and passwords for websites that you sign into is a great time- and memory-saver. There are even free utilities for popular Web browsers that will synchronise this information between computers, or from your computer to your smartphone.
And if, like many Web users, you fill in a lot of forms online – email address, street address, 'memorable data' etc. – you will know how tedious it can be, and how useful it is to have your browser remember those too.
The problem comes if your computer is used by more than one person, whether it is legitimately by a member of the family, say, or illegitimately by a thief. What you may not realise is that some browsers store your passwords in plain text; others encrypt them, but if the browser is already open, your user data is there, ready to be filled in.
This is where RoboForm comes in. Not only does it offer to save – and accurately fill in – data for all sorts of forms, from passwords to passport numbers, but it encrypts it and locks it all away behind a single, strong master key or password. And with the optional online service, it can do all this in different browsers on different systems, so data keyed in on a Windows PC in Internet Explorer can then be auto-entered via Firefox running on Linux or Safari on a Mac, say.
You do need a Windows system to run the RoboForm set-up programs, but there are browser plug-ins for Mac and Linux, and apps or plug-ins for many smartphones; these are more limited in their functionality than the Windows equivalents though, for instance the Windows plug-ins let you create identities and encrypted notes but the others do not. There is also a set-up program for USB sticks which loads a portable version of the program so you can use your login details on other PCs without having to install the main program; again, this is Windows-only.
The program works by adding a toolbar to the browser – you can then use this to go to sites that you have stored details for and automatically log in. The toolbar will automatically log you out if it is not used for a specified length of time. The browser will probably still offer to remember passwords as well, for security this should be disabled.
The toolbar also gives access to 'passcards' – entries stored for a webpage that allow you to handle multipage log-in stages such as those used by banking sites. We did see occasional oddities with this – for instance, on banking log-ins that request characters from a passphrase it offered to save subsequent sets as new log-in details, but this was not a major problem, and it did correctly save and enter passwords that the browser had refused to save.
Also on the toolbar is a password generator tool, which automatically produces a random alphanumeric code. This would be very hard to remember – and, of course, to crack – but RoboForm will store it for you behind your master password. And it can save and manage multiple sets of identity data, if you use different addresses for different purposes, say.
RoboForm 7 is free for personal users who need 10 or fewer log-ins, or £19.99 otherwise. The synchronisation option, called RoboForm Everywhere, is subscription only (£7.99 for the first year, £13.99 a year thereafter), but usefully it then works across all your browsers and devices, and it gives you Web access to your data from any connected device.
For anyone worried about online security – and we should all be – but reluctant to sacrifice too much ease-of-use, RoboForm provides quite a bit more of both than a browser will.
Nektoon AG Memonic
Free or £18/year
Online note-taking apps are a fast-growing segment yet one that is not even five years old. The dominant aspect is taking digital notes, storing pictures and clipping items of interest from the Web.
Swiss developer Nektoon aims to expand on all that with Memonic – yes, the spelling is deliberate – by adding the ability to clip and save either a whole webpage or just elements of it, and then republish saved items via the Memonic website, either as links from your own webpage or in an email, or via Facebook or Twitter. Privacy settings allow you to control who can see which saved items, for example only yourself, only specified people, or anyone. This lets you share a set of saved items with a group of friends, who can then contribute their own clips and discuss it all.
The free version of the service is limited to 100 saved items in up to three groups. That sounds like a fair bit, but if you need more there is also a premium version at £18 a year. As well as removing the limit on items and groups, this adds SSL security and a feature called Gathering mode, which makes it simpler to pull a project's content together – in the free version everything starts out in the catch-all inbox, and must be manually assigned to a group.
Memonic works via plug-ins for all the popular browsers – Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera. There is also a Facebook extension for Firefox that adds a 'Save' button, allowing you to keep copies of wall posts, status updates, photos and the like.
As well as the Web tools, there are client programs for iPhones and iPads and for Android phones, with an Android tablet version on the way. The Windows version adds the ability to save screenshots, write notes and save text and pictures from Windows applications – and again, you can clip only the bits you want so you don't have to save the whole document.
The client programs can store your content on the PC or mobile device too, so you can access it offline.
For anyone researching a project, whether for work, college or simply for interest, the concept is great, especially as Memonic allows you to sort your stored items into folders. And the ability to save pages and page elements is better than saving a load of invalid links – you could almost describe it as being like your own personal content management system. What is not clear is the copyright position, as letting users republish copyright text or images could set Memonic up for legal challenges.