Tech Tip – iPhone Twitter App Shoot-Out

Posted on Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009

It’s Guest Post Week here at Good Old Rock! Today Marcelo will be evaluating different Twitter apps for the iPhone.

Greetings, everyone! Since Matt is a corporate shill Blackberry user, he asked for some outside assistance in figuring out the best Twitter applications for the iPhone. If you’re like me and you want to do more with your phone than show people your adorable kitty photos on the go, then bringing in Twitter functionality is a good place to start.

At a glance it’s clear that the iPhone and Twitter are totally MFEO. They both appeal to hipster cognoscenti who need new ways to show off how awesome they are. They both represent the current flavor of the month in technology and the mobile web. Plus the service is tailor-made for the hardware – it’s a royal pain to write a long email or blog entry on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, but with the 140 character limit the keyboard becomes a perfect match for Twitter.

I am not a power Twitter user. I have about a hundred people I follow, half of them are feeds. I post the occasional update and picture. But Twitter is modular, people can use it for all sorts of awesome things, so I tried to keep this in mind while writing this article.

I took on four of the top iPhone Twitter applications – Twitterrific, Twittelator, Twitterfon, and Tweetie. There are at least a dozen others, but these four are the most popular and well-known. Right away it was clear that Twitterrific and Twittelator were severely underwhelming. Both had busy interfaces with too many bells and whistles, both had tons of gaping holes in the way they handled things like Twitpic (Twitterrific actually posts your pic to Twitpic upon mere pic selection, even if you ultimately cancel your tweet), and both had annoying issues with their free versions, replete with crippled features and annoying ads. So it came down to two most popular applications – Tweetie and Twitterfon. Tweetie is only available as a 2.99 download, while Twitterfon comes in both free and Pro versions, the Pro costing 4.99.

TwitterfonFirst up, Twitterfon. I reviewed the free version because hey, it’s free! The interface is nearly flawless. New tweets are shaded blue, replies shaded in green, the rest in white. It autojumps to your last read tweet making chronological reading a cinch (you can change this in the options). There’s also a little red indicator at the bottom telling you if you have any unread replies or new tweets, which is incredibly handy when you want to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Links appear in-tweet, which lets you go easily to whatever you want without clicking through another page (favoriting is also done directly from the feed). In a back-and-forth with other people you can switch to a conversation view featuring the iChat-esque speech bubbles.

Twitterfon is also great with posting. In addition to GPS and Twitpic functionality, Twitterfon also has a drop-down friends list so you can easily pick someone to @mention without worrying about spelling their username. Another neat feature – if you accidentally pick a photo you don’t want, you can clear it without having to trash your entire draft and rewrite it from scratch. No other apps have those two functions. The one thing Twitterfon doesn’t do is reduce your character count after attaching a photo, so you could end up getting cut off if you don’t mentally factor the size of your Twitpic URL into your post. That’s annoying. The newer version also seems a little choppier than it used to be, but it hasn’t made browsing my feed any more difficult, just less smooth.

In terms of other features, Twitterfon is quite light. There’s a decent search function that lets you find tweets by keyword, trend, proximity, or user. There’s no Twitterverse feed or Featured tweeters or anything designed to increase your network. One thing missing from the app is multiple account management – you have to re-login every time you want to switch. Twitterfon recently added in-app follow/unfollow, which brings a much-needed function to the app.

Twitterfon is free with a single unobtrusive ad at the top of your feed. There is a 4.99 pro version that’s brand new, featuring multiple account management, landscape posting, themes, and and Instapaper integration. The free version is easily the best free Twitter app in the store and the paid version looks like it covers all the things the free one misses. If all you want to do is tweet on the go and check your feed every now and then without paying any money, then get the free one and be done with it. If you want more, you have two options – upgrade to Pro, or switch to Tweetie.

Tweetie ScreenshotTweetie’s interface is very similar to Twitterfon’s, except I’m missing the slight blue shading of new unread tweets. I’m also missing how Twitterfon auto-jumps you to the last read tweet. Unless you read your feed top-down it’s hard to find where you left off. The refresh button is also placed curiously within your feed at the very top of the list, forcing you to leave your place and go to the top of your feed every time you want to refresh. It should have been in the menu bar up top, always available. Probably the most annoying thing is link integration. If you want to check out one of the links in a tweet, you have to click on the tweet, then click again on the link you want. Same for favoriting. TwitterFon has each link embedded in the tweet itself, and it’s annoying that Tweetie requires an extra screen to get there. One neat feature is that when someone posts a Twitpic, the browser displays the picture in fullscreen like a photo in your library, whereas Twitterfon displays the entire Twitpic webpage.

Posting tweets is almost identical to Twitterfon save the drop-down user list. Landscape typing is also available in the options, which is a welcome feature for many users. While the picture selector doesn’t let you clear a previously selected picture, it does reduce your char count to 116 after adding a picture to your post. Tweetie also auto-compresses your pictures to a teeny 16kb, which is a godsend on slow networks. It’s a pretty lossy compression, but you can change the compression settings in the options using a sliding bar if you think it’s too much.

Where Tweetie really shines is its extra features. There is a robust in-app follow/unfollow which feels more consistent than Twitterfon. Tweetie also handles multiple accounts and lets you view the public timeline, trends, location feeds, individual users, and keyword search very quickly and easily. The one feature conspicuously missing is group management for power users. It would be a nice addition to have, especially for a paid application. I should note that just about all of Tweetie’s features except the nice Twitpic integration are available in the paid Twitterfon Pro.

Final verdict: When I started researching this review, these two applications were WAY different than they are now. The battle used to be between a robust ad-free free app and a fully-featured pay app, but now that Twitterfon has a pro version featuring so many of Tweetie’s features the battle comes much more complicated. All three of these apps cover the basic Twitter functionality quite well. What you’re choosing between is that 5% fringe of random features and UI quirks that might or might not justify the price they’re asking. At 4.99, Twitterfon Pro is the most expensive option, but it’s also the best. TF’s interface can’t be beat – it just can’t. You get all the tools you need to be an iPhone Twitter rockstar and the price is pretty low. But there’s a cheaper alternative in Tweetie. 3 dollars is a bargain price point for an app that does pretty much everything Twitterfon Pro does but in a slightly less slick way. And then there’s the free Twitterfon, which is perfectly fine for most Twitter users, the ones who post occasionally using their phones and read people’s feeds on the go. If you’re looking for a casual Twitter app, choose free Twitterfon. If you want a little more robustness and bells and whistles, try Tweetie or Twitterfon Pro, depending on how important saving two dollars is for you.

All these apps are constantly being updated with bug fixes and new features (in the time it took me to research and write this review both apps updated several times). iPhone users are very lucky that there are two great apps pushing each other to provide better service and more natural Twitter experiences, and from the looks of Matt’s Blackberry app shootout, it feels like the iPhone apps are way ahead of the game. Which makes sense. After all, Twitter and iPhone = Totally BFF.

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