iBird Explorer Pro
[This review is for the Pro version, for the Plus version, go here.]
iBird Explorer Pro is a app for the iPhone/iPod Touch with references for 891 species of birds found in North America. It is, so far, totally unique (apart from its iBird siblings, more on that later) as an interactive field guide (with songs and calls), exhaustive reference, and powerful search engine for iPhone/Touch carrying birders in the field. It is, in fact, pretty much unique as interactive, reference on any platform, and just maybe, the most unique and useful field accessory you are ever likely to see.
I have reviewed two previous versions of iBird Explorer Plus (original and the v1.4.1 update) in a sort of incremental way. Pro marks enough of a departure to warrant a whole new review. (iBird Plus and the regional apps will continue to be upgraded with new content and features appropriate to their serious birder audience, but Pro will acquire a feature set which is more appropriate for the professional guide, teacher, mentor, citizen scientist, ornithologist, or field biologist.)
In general, iBird Explorer Pro provides, for each of its 891 species, instant access to:
1 ) one or more detailed illustrations
2 ) an audio recording of songs and calls
3 ) a range map
4 ) a basic description of identifying features and associated habitats
5 ) what amounts to a complete life-history, which includes detailed descriptions of individual body parts, descriptions of habit, range, feeding and foraging, nesting, etc., etc.
6 ) a few interesting or unique facts and factoids about the species.
7 ) lists of, and live links to, similar species
8 ) one or more (often several) supplemental photographs
9 ) conservation status based on the IUCN/Bird Life International ratings
10 ) instant links to every photograph published on Flickr of the species (requires wifi or 3G)
11 ) an instant link to the Wikipedia article for the bird (requires wifi or 3G).
12 ) and a large version of the primary illustration which can be zoomed in to study detail.
You can browse the species listing sorted alphabetically by first name (common names, Yellow-rumped for Yellow-rumped Warbler), or by last name (Warbler for Yellow-rumped Warbler). (Note that typing in Warbler does not pull up all the warblers, only those with Warbler as their last name. Painted Redstart, for instance, would not included in the species found by the keyword “warbler”. To find all Warblers you could do a search by family in the search section, see below, or use browse by Family, also just below.) In standard iPhone fashion, a quick index on the side of the page allows you to jump directly to any letter, or to scroll quickly through the letters. You can also view and browse by Families (as in all Wood Warblers), sorted in in the order they appear in on the American Ornithological Union check-list.
You can type all or part of a common name in the keyword field, or you can enter the “/” character and the 4 letter banding code, or “&” and the Scientific Name, and iBird will locate the species or group of species for you.
Tapping any species name in the browse pages will open the species (bird) screen with a scrolling (left and right) two-row set of info buttons at the bottom. Here you select from illustrations (Bird), Sounds (little speaker icon), Range, Identity, Photos, Similar, Facts, Birdipedia or (scrolling right) Favorites, Ecology, Flickr, or Portrait (all of which correspond to the information listed above.)
On top of all that, iBird Explorer Pro also has a built in search engine which can sort the included 891 species by:
1 ) Location (multiple settings possible)
2 ) Shape
3 ) Size
4 ) Habitat (multiple settings possible)
5 ) Primary Color (multiple settings possible)
6 ) Secondary Color (multiple settings possible) (Both primary and secondary color setting require care. If you specify two or more incomputable colors you will end up with no matches.)
7 ) Backyard Feeders (yes or no)
8 ) Family
9 ) Bill shape
10 ) Bill length
11 ) Head pattern
12 ) Crown Color
13 ) Wing Shape
14 ) Flight pattern
15 ) Conservation status
16 ) Song
17 ) Song pattern
18 ) Observed status in a particular state in a particular month (based on actual sightings records)
The search process is fast and efficient, and, in my experience, very accurate. While some (maybe most) experienced birders may prefer to use the sorting engine they have developed over years of field experience in their own brains, the search engine in iBird Explorer Pro will teach beginning and growing birders some good ID skills (at the very least what features to look for, and at the most, the most likely species to display them). It is also very useful when someone walks up with one of those “I saw a bird in my backyard the other day, and it was this big, and blue, and…” stories. Instead so smiling tolerantly (or superiorly, depending on who you are), and then making a series of inspired guesses (or shaking your head and walking away, again, depending), you can now enter the features as they are mentioned, ask pertinent questions
(where is your backyard, what kind of habitat does it provide, did you notice the color of the crown, shape and length of the bill, etc, etc.) and end up with a small (hopefully) list of birds you can actually show them on the spot…and even play back the songs if they heard the bird sing. (You may answer some questions and spark some interest in birds and birding, but one thing I guarantee you will do, is sell quite a few copies of iBird, and maybe a few iPhones as well.)
So let us answer the question on many minds right now: how is Pro different from Plus? There is a feature table here.
In a nutshell, Plus lacks Song search, obvious band code and scientific name keywording (hint), search by month/state, the Ecology page (and search by Conservation Status), the full sized portrait, and the foreign language option. That’s it. All other features are there (even if some are not immediately obvious (hint):).
Is that worth the $10 difference? Maybe not, for some, but we are told that the differences will become more profound as more professional features are added to Pro.
The intention, according to the iBird folks, is to create a feature set for Plus that suits the needs of the average advanced birder, and to create a feature set for Pro that meets the needs of the professional, with professional being, in my interpretation, loosely defined as the group mentioned above.
Many even serious birders will find the features of Plus (and the regional variations) to be completely adequate. If you are among them, I don’t think you have to fear that there will be a time when you suddenly need a feature from Pro and have to buy the new program. Put down your $19,99 and be happy. Your app will continue to develop along the existing lines. On the other hand, if you are a professional guide, teacher, mentor, citizen scientist, ornithologist, or field biologist, who needs the Pro features now, you can be assured that more Pro level features are coming to Pro in the future. And if you are not sure, or you are just the kind of birder who has to have the most advanced tools, then just pay the $10 extra up front and be happy.
For those who already own Plus, it is a harder decision. Is there a feature of Pro that you can’t live without? Then go for it now. Pro will only get better. On the other hand, if you don’t find a compelling reason to buy a new app (Pro) to replace your existing Plus, then stay with Plus. It too will only get better.
In this, of course, we are kind of at the mercy of the Mitch Waite Group and their decisions about what constitutes a serious (Plus) feature and what constitutes a Pro feature. In the current split, I could argue strongly that Song search should be a Plus feature, not necessarily a Pro feature. In fact I plan to do so, via the new iBird Explorer discussion forum the iBird folks just put up. By the evidence so far, the Mitch Waite Group listens carefully to user feedback and feature requests in making these kinds of decisions.
And consider this: either program is a bargain at the price. To duplicate the content it would cost many times as much. The search features simply can not be duplicated.
And finally, the upgrade controversy. No there is no way, currently, for a Plus user to upgrade to Pro, other than buying the new program at the full price. There should be, but with the App Store system, which is totally under Apple’s control, there is not. This should change sometime after June when iPhone OS 3.0 becomes available, but it is really up to Apple, and until then…
You have choices. Need Pro. Buy it. Even if you have Plus. After all, even if you add the two prices together, it is still a bargain. If you can live without the features of Pro, do so. For now. Upgrade only when you have to. (And maybe by then there will be an upgrade path?? Who knows?)
(To be fair, I have three National Geo guides sitting on my shelf, one of each recent edition, and two copies of guides by Kenn Kaufman which only differ by the composition of the cover. I did not expect the publishers of those guides to upgrade my guide when a new edition, or an improved cover, came out. I did not even, come to think of it, as for a rebate, or a credit for already owning a copy. I just went out and bought the new guide. And no printed guide has ever promised, as iBird does, continuous upgrades of the content. (Oh there was that page for Sibely you were supposed to tape into your book…but you know what I mean.))
The bottom line here is that iBird Explorer Plus/Pro is an absolute must have app for any iPhone/iPod Touch owner who is even moderately intersted in birds. Plus for the moderate. Pro for the, well, for the not so moderate. For the avid birder, what can I say? Buy iBird Explorer. In fact, buy an iPhone if you have to, to run it on. With apps like iBird Explorer you will never regret the investment.