Crossword Puzzle Apps for IPhone

Solving crossword puzzles is fun, challenging, and--some say--good for keeping the mind sharp as you get older. Very few days go by when I don't try and fill in a grid or two (though I can't say how tack-like it keeps my brain).

Although pencil and paper adds a tactile aspect to the process, I solve most of my crosswords these days on my MacBook using Black Ink. But when neither option is available, it's good to know that there are two capable crossword puzzle apps for the iPhone.

Both 2 Across and Crosswords give you access to many free puzzles from places including the Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Enquirer, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post: 2 Across has the slight edge, however, by offering about twice as many puzzles, including puzzles from the Los Angeles Times and cryptics as well. Both apps let you enter your username and password in order to download daily puzzles from the New York Times if you subscribe to the publication's puzzles (available free with a newspaper subscription, or separately for those who don't get The Times delivered to their doors). Crosswords, however, does have a unique feature that lets you download all of a day's puzzles with a single click.

Puzzles aside, the big difference between the two apps is the way they let you enter clues and move around the grid. 2 Across has a more polished interface, with large buttons, puzzles that look like their print counterparts, the ability to control the clue font size, support for multiple letters in a square, and automatic skipping to the next clue. Its Grid view shows you the puzzle with the clue for the highlighted squares, Split view shows that plus the next several clues, and Clues view shows all the clues in a list with the highlighted, finished, and unfinished clues in different colors or shades (tapping on a clue in Clues view selects it, but doesn't take you to those squares in one of the other views--you have to manually switch).

2 Across also lets you use gestures for the clue bar: swipe right to go to the next clue or next incomplete clue; swipe left to to the previous clue or previous incomplete clue; tap to switch directions, go to the first square of a clue, or go the first empty square of a clue; and double tap to switch directions, go to the first square of a clue, or the first empty square of a clue.

On the negative side, 2 Across doesn't show its keyboard in any of its normal modes. When you double-tap on a square to bring up the keyboard (the way you enter letters), it takes up so much room that you can't see very much of the puzzle. That makes it hard to see longer answers, unless you pinch to zoom out (a setting the app doesn't remember once you exit from the puzzle) and make the whole puzzle very small. It also doesn't offer a landscape mode for solving puzzles.

Crosswords, on the other hand, has a keyboard embedded as part of its interface--although it's not the standard iPhone keyboard--that comes in two sizes. (If you find the keyboard too small, you can enable the Large Keyboard option in the app's settings.) In portrait mode, you see the puzzle, keyboard, and the clue for the selected word. If you tap on the Clues button, you get a list of all the clues with the squares for each clue as well as any letters you've filled in--a great touch, although it would be nice if you could tap to bring up a keyboard and enter letters in that view as well. Switching to landscape mode shows a smaller part of the puzzle, the keyboard, and multiple clues on the right side--you can scroll through the clues and tap on one to move the input to that clue in the puzzle.

If you turn on the Show Nav. Arrows setting in Crosswords, you can see a floating collection of arrows--tapping on any of the four directions moves the cursor in that direction--on the screen in either orientation. Like 2 Across, Crosswords lets you enter multiple letters in a square. And for puzzles with unlocked answers, both apps offer ways to show you mistakes or reveal missing characters. 2 Across has more options, with the ability to check or reveal letters, words, or the entire grid. Crosswords lets you reveal a letter or the entire puzzle, or show all your errors.

Crossword's Clue bar has arrows at either end for moving to the previous or next clue, and tapping on it switches clue direction (from across to down, for example).

Compared to 2 Across, you have more limited control over the size of your puzzle. The app defaults to a full-width view of the puzzle, where tapping and holding on a square brings up a magnifying glass so you can find the precise square you're looking for. And you can double-tap on a location to zoom in--from there, you can drag the puzzle around the screen. And Crosswords remembers your display choice, so if you exit a puzzle and return to it later, you're in the same place with the same amount of zoom.

Luckily, each app offers a free version as well, which are basically teasers for the full versions. 2 Across, Lite Edition and Crossword Light work the same way as their pay cousins, but only have access to a few of the puzzles. So if you're trying to decide which app suits your needs, download the free versions and take them for a spin.

2 Across and Crosswords are compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.0 software update.

[Senior news editor Jonathan Seff is awaiting publication of his second crossword puzzle in the LA Times on October 2.]

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