Retro Tape Deck

Software reviews: analogue emulations

Smartphones and tablets can simulate pretty much any analogue activity, from classic games to handwriting and meters with flicking needles.

Retro Tape Deck 

Keith Hughes, free, for Android

Simple yet amusing, Retro Tape Desk is a basic MP3 player with a remarkably realistic animation of a Sony Walkman-style cassette player. As it plays your MP3 track, the tape reel shows the actual track position.

To add verisimilitude, the track title shows up as a pencilled or typed label on the cassette, and it comes with a selection of cassette tape designs. Several similar apps exist for iPhone users.


Diotek Co., free or £1.70 for full version, for Android

Typing on-screen is great for some people, but many of us still prefer to write by hand. But why use paper when you can do the same on a phone? Samsung recognised this when it equipped its latest Galaxy Note 3 tablet with note-taking software and a stylus, and now DioNote can do something similar for the rest of us.

DioNote works well with a fingertip; alternatively you can buy a suitable stylus. The one caveat is that modern touchscreens are usually capacitive and only work with certain materials, whereas the older resistive type would work with pretty much any pointed object. Capacitive styluses tend to have soft and blobby tips, and are very much a case of 'you get what you pay for', with the cheap ones only good for tapping, not for writing.

You can use DioNote for drawings as well as writing, of course, or pull in other graphics or photos and annotate them. The width of the line drawn is controlled within the app, not by the finger pressure or stylus width, which might take a little getting used to.

There are few caveats, first that it cannot convert writing to text, unlike say Microsoft OneNote running on a Windows PC or tablet. It can search your handwritten notes though, and while its pattern recognition did sometimes throw up false positives in our tests, it seemed remarkably good at picking up the correct notes – at least, as long as your handwriting is fairly consistent.

Another quibble is that in note mode you can't write anywhere on the screen, only in the data-entry box, so you have to keep sweeping back from right to left. Lastly, the free version is limited to 30 memos and it will cost you £1.70 to unlock it for unlimited use.

Snake '97 

DSD164, free, for Android, iPhone

If you are one of the many millions who had – or perhaps still has – a non-smart Nokia mobile phone, you will probably remember Snake.

This simple game of guiding what was basically a string of dot-matrix pixels around a maze did not originate with mobile phones, but for many, the Nokia versions provided one of the best ways to while away spare moments in the days before mobile email, Facebook and all the rest.

While the game has been reinvented several times by different programmers on various mobile devices, Snake '97 is one of the best for the nostalgic player. Not only do you get a version of the classic monochrome game on an old-school screen with its yellow-green backlight, it even replicates the original beeps and the Nokia phone's fascia and keyboard, with five phones to choose from.

Better still, the replica keyboard works like the original, at least as far as the game is concerned, allowing you to control your snake using the authentic key patterns. There are also a dozen difficulty levels, and a version of Snake 2, which added bonus creatures, extra labyrinths and the ability to go through walls. The author says that creating the game required extensive analysis of the original's gameplay, timing and controls. He has even included its high score that cannot be reset, to complete the verisimilitude.

Pac-Man Lite 

Bandai-Namco, free, for Android, iPhone, Windows Phone

From the company behind so many of those original arcade games, this is a free version of Pac-Man's first stage. As well as the basic maze you can buy more mazes, along with extra lives and so on. You can control Pac-Man either using an on-screen joystick or simply by swiping him left and right with your finger – we found the latter more controllable, but others may prefer the dedicated controller.

The pop-up ads (mostly for other Bandai games) are annoying but the game, just like the 1970s original, is addictive. And once you are addicted, you can move on to the £4.99 full version, which offers multiple difficulty levels. Similar versions are also available for Android and Windows Phone; there are also lots of unauthorised Pac-Man clones, of course.

Sound Meter 

Borce Trajkovski, free, for Android

Inventive programmers are continually finding new uses for the many sensors packed into modern mobile devices, as Sound Meter demonstrates. As the name says, the app takes the device's microphone and uses it to monitor the local sound level, with the neat touch that it presents the results via a replica of a vintage wood-cased analogue meter.

The app responds fast and is pretty sophisticated under the covers. It supports various weighting schemes, headroom extension to overcome high-end distortion, customisable fall-off speed, and the ability to set the screen always-on or set an alert for when the sound level hits a certain dB threshold. You can also choose from a variety of meter 'skins', with either round or square meter windows. A more modern pop-up box below the meter gives the average dB level and an estimate of how the level will feel to the user.

The one caveat with all apps of this kind is of course that you are very dependent on the quality of the sensors.

This was particularly noticeable with the same author's companion Light Meter app, where the budget phones tested clearly had budget light sensors. Similarly, the Sound Meter app warns that some devices may generate microphone noise, making it difficult or impossible to measure low sound levels, and that devices with automatic gain control can cause problems.

To get around some of this, the apps include a number of standard configurations for common devices, plus instructions on how to calibrate the app accurately using a pink noise generator. The app is ad-supported, but the ads are not too intrusive.

Pocket DJ Vintage 

Beatronik, free demo or £1.60 for full version, for Android

DJ tricks such as mixing two singles together or 'scratching' a disc by turning it with your finger are about as analogue as you can get, which is probably why apps that let you do these things on-screen typically give you an image of a traditional two-turntable DJ desk as the user interface.

There are quite a few of these available. We chose Pocket DJ Vintage for Android, which has an attractive ad-free design and is rather simpler to get started with than the same developer's professional-grade DJ apps. You can mix five pairs of songs with the demo version; the full app is $2 (about £1.60).

As well as two touch-sensitive turntables, which let you spin the virtual disc forwards and back with a fingertip, Pocket DJ offers volume sliders for each, cue buttons to play specific clips or sequences, and a cross-fader or balance slider so you can mix from one disc to the other. I say disc, but you can play and mix pretty much any MP3 or WAV sound file on your phone or tablet. There is also a record button so you can keep a copy of your handiwork, and a pitch adjuster, though the latter only works for WAV files.

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