Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Larkwire Mobile App

As you may recall from earlier this year, Nick did a nice, thorough review of the fairly new internet app called Larkwire, an innovative, interactive way to learn bird songs and calls. This app was previously only available through one’s computer and you had to have internet connection. But now, keeping up with our ever more mobile society, Larkwire now has a mobile app available for the iPhone, iPad, or iPad Touch. Already this is a plus from the previous app since now you can carry it with you anywhere you go, and now you don’t need an internet connection to play. Just simply download the app onto your device, and you’re ready to rock and roll!

Please note that as of now, the mobile app is not yet available for other smart phones and tablets. But lucky for us, we are Apple people, so it worked out nicely when Larkwire came to us to do a review of their mobile app. We have both iPhones and an iPad. I’ve been playing with Larkwire primarily on the iPad so I can get the full effect. I didn’t really play with the internet app that Nick previously used and reviewed. So this was a good opportunity for me to take on Larkwire with a fairly fresh outlook and review of this product. And Nick will chime in and provide a more comparative review.

So, to catch you up to speed, according to the developers, “Larkwire is a complete, game-based learning system for mastering bird sounds—designed for both beginners and advanced birders.” The game aspect of the app really sets it apart from other traditional ways of learning bird song, such as repeatedly listening to tracks on a CD with the name of the bird spoken to you before you hear one or several samples of that bird’s song or call. Larkwire forces you to learn songs through testing and re-testing you until you reach a comfortable level of familiarity with the songs.

As you can recall from Nick’s previous review, there are two game modes: Gallery and Field. Gallery is more of a beginner mode in which you are presented with 4 similar-sounding birds. You can play each bird’s song as many times as you want before the start of the game in order to familiarize yourself with each bird. And then once you start playing the game, you are played a song and have to match it with the correct bird. The Field mode, however, will play you a song from a group of similar-sounding birds and then you have to determine whether or not you know it. And based on the honor system, you indicate whether you got it right or not. You can choose which group or groups of birds with which you’d like to test yourself, such as “High Whistles,” “Robin-Like,” or various sounds within Warbler groups, such as “Rolling or Choppy” or “Buzzy” warblers. The great thing about Larkwire is that it uses an algorithm that adapts to your learning pace. The app recalls your skill level each time you play so that it can pick up where you left off.

Gallery Mode on iPad

Gallery Mode on the iPhone 5, for comparison

I played both the Gallery mode and the Field mode at both the beginner and intermediate levels just to test myself and the app’s progression through different levels. (The app goes up to Advanced and Master levels). The beginner level is a good place to start for novices. You also have the option to have tips pop-up while you are playing so that you can learn about different features about the app as you are getting started. Once you play for a while, you can turn these off. At the beginner level, you definitely start to get comfortable with hearing and differentiating between different bird songs. You can start to think pretty highly of yourself for knowing some pretty easy distinctions, such as that between a white-breasted nuthatch and a downy woodpecker. But once you start stepping it up in level, the groups of similar sounding birds starts to get more narrow and more difficult to distinguish, such as those buzzy warblers.

Field Mode on iPad

Field Mode on iPhone 5, for comparison

I like how the Field games will build you up. It will start with 3 birds, playing a sample of sounds from each one, and then testing you several times before adding a new bird to the group. You’ll end up with about 6 different birds within one group, at least in the intermediate level. (However, note that you can add as many bird groups as you want, potentially increasing the number of birds in one game session to the total number of birds in your songpack – 344 for all birds, 233 for just Central/Eastern birds, or 299 for just Western birds). If you recall that old game of Simon from the late 70s and 80s, it’s kinda like that except much more sophisticated. The similarity is how it starts off slowly and playing a few simple tones, and then gradually increases in difficulty through complex songs. Larkwire works similarly in that it gradually increases the number of birds that you are having to distinguish within one session, thus increasing difficulty. There is a progression bar that fills up as you get more and more answers correct, but it will decrease any time you make a mistake. This way you are not moving on until the app feels like you are ready and mastering that group. And when you are done with a session, Larkwire will suggest how you should move on. It may even suggest to you to take a break from a certain group if you have been on that group for a while. It’s ultimately up to you what your next step is, but it’s cool that it will make a suggestion based on your skill and progression level. It just further displays how this app is truly interactive and adaptive.

Unlike some other methods of learning bird songs, Larkwire incorporates several variations of songs and calls for each bird, therefore making it more like how you learn in the field. To really get the most out of this app, repetition is the key. You have to keep playing and listening to really get it. (Having your eyes closed may help as you can really focus on your sense of sound that way). You can get frustrated pretty easily as the more you hear the sounds, they can start to jumble in your mind. But the more you make the correct choices, the more you start to hear the little distinctions between species, like how one bird’s song usually rises and then falls rather than just rising, or how one bird’s song will be a little deeper and more “burry” versus one that sounds a little crisper and sweeter.

Interactive Glossary

Now you may say to yourself, what the heck are you talking about with these different terms? Well, Larkwire can help you with that! They have an awesome interactive glossary that provides you with terms and descriptions and samples of these terms for different qualities of a bird’s song. If you are familiar with wine-tasting, it’s a bit how you may learn what it means for a wine to have a floral bouquet, woodsy undertones, and all of that other stuff that makes no sense to me =) Larkwire can definitely guide you in the right direction of acquiring a more refined ear like wine-tasting can help you acquire a more refined palette (which is not the case for me with wine, but I can say my ear is improving).

Your experience with the app can vary a bit depending on if you play it on the iPhone or iPod touch versus the iPad. I must say that I prefer the iPad’s interface the larger screen surface area allows for presenting more information all on one page. For example, you can see how the iPad will allow you to see all of the different bird groups while you are playing a game, and the layout is more spread out. The iPhone still has all of these viewing options, but you just have to take one extra step to see them. In the case of seeing the different bird groups, you’ll see that you have to push the big green button on the left to toggle to the page where you can see the groups. It’s really not a huge deal, but the iPad version does add a little bit more ease to playing the game. Also, having the iPad really allows you to see how incredibly awesome the photos are for each species. The clarity, focus, and detail that you can see in each bird photo is truly outstanding! You just can’t get the full effect of these photos on your iPhone or iPod touch. But it really has nothing to do with how the app functions, it just adds an extra aesthetic bonus.

User-friendly Search tool

Overall, I think Larkwire is a fantastic app that really immerses you in learning bird sounds. It’s responsive to your skill level and it offers a truly interactive experience. Mastering birding by ear can be quite a daunting task. It seems the best way to learn, for me any way, is to hear the sound out in the field while having a more experienced birder point out the song or call and telling me what bird is the culprit. Listening to CD’s or mp3’s can be helpful to familiarize yourself with bird sounds, but Larkwire tests you more along the lines of being out in the field and someone saying “What bird is that?” With Larkwire, you can have the advantage of knowing what group to choose from, but you can increase the difficulty by including several groups in your game session if you’d like.

Display in the Search tool showing variations of each bird's song based on region

One criticism is that I can’t seem to find a way to sort of reset the game settings if I want to start fresh. For example, when I first started playing with Larkwire a few months ago, I started mastering one group. But then it was a while before I picked up the game again to play around, and I kind of lost some of my mastery of that group, but Larkwire didn’t know that because it didn’t seem to recognize that it was a while since I last played. So it would be nice to reset the app in a way so that you can start fresh if you wanted to. Also, another criticism is that because you are not having to sign in with an account on your devices, if you play between several different devices, Larkwire won’t know where you are on one device versus the other. For example, if I’ve become a master of some area on my iPad, but then I play on my iPhone, Larkwire won’t recognize my mastery of whatever I did on my iPad. If Larkwire could kind of combine having an account and being able to play on your device without having to use the internet, that would be awesome.

These are just improvements that I can suggest that would make Larkwire even more user friendly, but again, overall I think it’s a really great app. I’ve even suggested it to few people for learning bird songs, and I know of one who actually bought it and uses it. So I’ve contributed at least one paying customer! Larkwire, you’re welcome ;-)

Nick's take on the Larkwire mobile app:

As Maureen noted, this is my second review of Larkwire. My original review was posted back in February, and still expresses my overall impressions of the birdsong-learning app. But at the time I wrote it, the only way to use Larkwire was as a web-based app: you paid a one-time fee to the company, which entitled the customer to access the song library and games throughout their lifetime. As I noted at the time, my preference would have been for a native app, which can be downloaded to the customer's device(s) and played locally, rather than streamed over the internet. Well, my wish has come true. So the question is, how does it compare?

I have to say, this is exactly the product that I had hoped Larkwire would create. As noted previously, I had experienced some minor performance issues with the web-based app that I had found somewhat annoying. To be fair, the developer, Phil Mitchell, noted after I'd written my review that those issues were limited to the browser I'd been using, Safari, so there were definitely work-arounds available. For the past few of months now, I've been using the native app on my iPhones. First on the 3GS, and more recently, on the iPhone 5. To date, I've had absolutely no problems with performance on either device.

Another advantage of the native app is portability. I don't always want play with Larkwire while siting at my computer at home; in fact, I've found myself using it most often on either sitting on a park bench on my lunch break, or in bed before I go to sleep. Before the native app became available, Larkwire's recommendation for playing on portable devices was to save a bookmark to the website and to operate through over your phone's internet connection. If you had a reliable internet connection, this was mostly satisfactory, but a reliable 3G or 4G connection is by no means a given. As I said in February, a problem like that "really takes your head out of the game" because you want your experience to flow. Since I've been using the native app, it definitely has flowed.

As with the web-based app, Larkwire keeps track of your progress over time, and over uses. It may like seem obvious feature, but it's especially reassuring when you're playing over your phone, and a phone call might break in at any moment. However, the way the user's information is saved is completely different between the two formats. The web-based app requires the user to log in to their account, since their progress is stored remotely. The native app, in contrast, stores a user's progress directly in the app.

The problem is that you you change phones or have to re-install the app, your user history is wiped clean. The next time you try and use the app, you'll find yourself starting from scratch. You can always skip ahead to intermediate, advanced, or master levels, but your progress within a level will be gone. Compare this with the web-based app, where this is never an issue. In other words, the only reason that any problem exists here is that the web-based app and the native app are purchased separtely. If Larkwire allowed users to make only one purchase that provided access to both methods, or allowed the app to communicate with their servers, this problem could be avoided: just log in to your account through the app, and your histories would synch between formats. As Maureen indicated above, this would also benefit those customers who split their time over several devices.

With regard to customizability, Larkwire is awesome. There are lots of different ways of drilling down on particular species and groups that have been giving you trouble, and I touched on some of these in my previous review. Those feature are all present in the native app, too, so it's just as easy to perfect those buzzy warblers or trilling sparrows that have been giving you headaches. Within groups, you can select whichever birds you want Larkwire to test you on, but I haven't found a way to compare species across groups. For instance, in the field, I still confuse House Finches and Painted Buntings. It would be especially helpful if I could easily compare these two species directly, so that I could more quickly learn to differentiate them (UPDATE: there is a way to do this, which is explained in the comments section below). However, I find that, on the whole, there is very little need to create ad hoc groups, as Larkwire does an excellent job of grouping those species that are more likely to be cause persistent confusion among birders.

With regard to the screen layout, Maureen has already addressed the differences between the iPhone and the iPad above. The iPad's more efficient interface is doubtless a result of the much larger screen that the developers have to work with. As of this writing, the iPhone app hasn't been formatted to the iPhone 5 (which is 4" vs. 3.5" for previous versions of the iPhone). The result is that white bars now appear at the margins of the interface on the iPhone 5 (see screenshots above). This will doubtless be addressed in the near future, and may help bring the iPhone 5 and iPad versions more in line with one another. In the meantime, the white bars posed absolutely no problem for me, and without having had any direct interaction with the iPad version, I found the iPhone version to be both intuitive and helpful. I also appreciate that the the app keeps the current time active at the top of the screen, so that you don't lose track of time. Larkwire is extremely immersive, and time flies by when you're using it.

The bottom line is that I strongly and unhesitatingly recommend Larkwire. The question is, if you buy only one product, should it be the web-based or native app? Ideally, I wouldn't have to choose one or the other: as stated above, my preference is that users download a native app and log into an account that synchs your history across machines. In the absence of that particular functionality, I prefer the native app. I can take it anywhere, including when I fly, and since the songs are stored locally there is a greater sense of ownership over the product (for an example of why this may be important, visit the comments section of my previous review. Larkwire loses nothing in becoming a native app, and gains in convenience and reliability. If you find birdsong difficult, Larkwire is definitely a tool that you need to try. You can play with a trial version on the website if you're interested to see whether it's something that might work for you, and don't forget to check out my more other review here.


  1. Thanks Maureen and Nick for the really thoughtful reviews! You make so many great points ... and finally someone gave some love to the glossary! Let me respond to a couple of things:

    First, I totally agree with you about the sync problem. It's on our list to fix, but there are some significant technical hurdles and I can't promise when we'll clear them. But we hear you!

    Second, Nick you wished for a way to compare species that are not in the same group. This is actually easy (though apparently not intuitive!): select each of the species that you want to include and make sure that their groups are also selected. That's all ... now they'll be included in either a gallery or a field game, depending on how you have it set up.

    Thanks again ... can't wait to have you take a crack at Larkwire Water Birds!

    1. Thanks again for the opportunity to review this, Phil! With your help, I was able to successfully navigate the app to compare Painted Bunting with House Finch directly. This will come in handy! I've included an update in that section of the review to reflect that there is, in fact, a solution.

      Also... Larkwire Water Birds!!! Looking forward to digging in to it!

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