Cars 2 AppMates iPad toys stuck in neutral
At a Glance
It may not match the artistic achievement of the Toy Story trilogy, the distinctive look of The Incredibles, or even the heart of Ratatouille, but Cars is one of the more popular Pixar franchises, particularly among the pint-sized set. Given the appeal of Cars to kids, an onrush of merchandise tie-ins to last summer’s Cars 2 sequel was inevitable. And merchandise that also worked with the just-as-popular iPad—like the Cars 2 AppMates from Disney—was probably just as inevitable.
There’s actually a clever idea behind the AppMates, which are miniature recreations of the Cars 2 characters. You drive the little toys across the surface of an iPad, which is running a dedicated iPad app. Thanks to sensors on the bottom of the AppMate, the iPad software not only recognizes that the toys are on the screen, it can also distinguish the Lightning McQueen toy from the Holly Shiftwell one. From there, you can use your toy to interact with characters in the Cars 2 AppMates app, exploring Radiator Springs and racing against virtual opponents.
Like I said, it’s a clever idea. Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely well-executed one, as a result of problems with both the hardware and the software.
To make your AppMate visible to the accompanying iPad app when it’s placed on the tablet screen, you have to grip the car’s side windows with a finger—essentially completing a circuit. Loosen your grip on the car, and it will stop moving down the virtual streets of Radiator Springs. It sounds easy enough, but keeping your fingers in place for a prolonged period of play can be a bit of strain. Turning to follow the curves of a racetrack—all without letting go of the car—forced me to do things with my wrist that the human body shouldn’t be asked to do. Eventually, I settled on just holding my AppMate in place and rotating the iPad underneath to execute turns and other wrist-bending maneuvers.
Then again, I’m a full-grown adult, and the AppMates are designed for hands much smaller than mine. So I called upon my nephews—aged 10 and 8—to take these toy cars out for a test drive. The 10-year-old, a burgeoning gamer, took to the devices instantly; he was able to spin, turn, and race, without any problem. The 8-year-old had less success—but that was more an issue of how the cars and the app work together.
For best results, you need to keep your AppMate in the center of the iPad screen, while the action scrolls beneath you. Human instinct, however, makes us want to physically push the car forward, like we would a toy on a physical playset. That’s what my 8-year-old nephew kept doing, inching his Lightning McQueen toy ever forward until it was nearly off the edge of the iPad and the app had to politely remind him to return to the center of the screen. The 8-year-old seemed to enjoy playing with the AppMate toys, but he was also visibly frustrated. The bottom line: Not every kid is going to have an easy time playing with these toys.
The AppMate cars are only as good as the software that supports them, and as of this writing, the Cars 2 AppMates app just isn’t very good. I’ve been using version 1.1.1 of the iPad app during testing, and at first I wasn’t able to play for more than a few minutes without a crash of the non-vehicular kind. Driving around Radiator Springs, upgrading my virtual tires, participating in one of the game’s mini-challenges—all of it brought the app to a crashing halt, leaving me with little more than an undersized Cars toy. (Uninstalling the app—and wiping out all the achievements I had earned up until then—and restarting my iPad got the update to work properly.)
In happier days, when earlier versions of the app worked with greater reliability—in its brief App Store life, Cars 2 AppMates has never been entirely crash-free—I was able to explore the environs of Radiator Springs, and I think the multitude of activities will be enjoyable to most kids. That said, even at the app’s most stable, scrolling can be choppy, especially on the original iPad.
Since the app is free, I would recommend downloading it before you lay out any money for the toys. (The twin-pack of AppMate toys I tested cost about $23; some retailers offer a single car for half that.) The AppMates app features a “Paper Lightning” figure—basically an on-screen representation of the physical toy—that allows you to explore the app’s offerings. You can see if you have better luck with the current version’s stability than I did. And, since you have to keep your fingers on the Paper Lightning in the same way that you’d handle the physical toy, you can get a sense of whether your kids will adjust to AppMates’s quirky controls.
I appreciate any effort to turn the iPad into something other than a screen at which you passively stare. Disney should be applauded for thinking up ways to get kids to exercise their imaginations, even if it is in the name of moving more movie merchandise. The trouble is, AppMates—the toy and especially the iPad app—needs more time in the pit lane for some fine-tuning.
[Philip Michaels is the editor of Macworld.com.]