Acid Ape Chess

Acid Ape logo
Review details:

App version: Beta 11.2
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A high quality feature rich app which is both well designed and produced and also well supported. It is a ‘must have’ app for the advanced chess user, especially as it is free. Casual players will be better served by other chess apps. 

AAC gameAcid Ape Chess is an app for android devices from the Belgian developer Acid Ape Studios. The app is still technically in beta stage which may explain why it is free, unsupported by adverts and with no annoying in-app purchases. However, don’t let the app’s idiosyncratic name or beta status fool you – it is a fully operational and sophisticated app aimed squarely at the serious chess user. The developer is extremely generous in offering it to users for free. Given the quality of Acid Ape Chess it really is a ‘must have’ for the advanced user.

Features

Acid Ape Chess is one of the most advanced chess apps in terms of the number and breadth of features available – it is an app with all the ‘bells and whistles’. It is difficult to know where to start but perhaps easiest to say what it doesn’t do.

Well, strangely, it doesn’t play chess itself directly. So the issue of strength of chess play is not strictly relevant as the app has no native (inbuilt) engine. Rather it acts more as a chess gui. This has two specific benefits:

  1. you can choose your own engine  – the app comes with three engines (Arasan, ChenAAC engines and Scorpio) all of which are reliable and well-known. But you can also easily install any other compatiable engine (both UCI and CECP / winboard protocols are catered for as is the Open Exchange format to give maximum flexibility). A comprehensive archive of free engines is available to download from here.
  2. hardcore enthusiasts can set engines to play against each other to test relative strengths (though be warned – this does tend to drain the battery!)

Depending on the individual engine, for the hardened user it is also possible to edit/tweak various settings typically including hash size, skill level, and number of cores used etc.

Practical game play is very well catered for with the ability to play blindfold games (a little AAC_game_screenfrustrating due to the temperamental voice recognition entry system), Chess 960 (where an engine is able to) and also interestingly simultaneous games so you can mimic the exhibitions of the top players! Games can be played using sudden death (ie game in x minutes) or Fischer time controls (ie base time plus increment per move) though perhaps a little surprisingly, move based time controls (eg 40 moves in 1 hour etc) are not catered for. Games are automatically saved for future reference and there is a good range of file management options accessible via the Database icon. This enables different pgn database files to be loaded and also individual pgn files to be externally shared and copied and pasted from the clipboard. The simple ability to easily transfer games between different chess apps via the clipboard is a surprising omission in many chess apps.

If you get bored with engine play Acid Ape Chess also acts as a client interface for major online chess servers, FICS and ICC. Functionality is generally good with most key actions AAC FICS gamereadily available from within the app. However, the ability to filter game search is currently an omission (I want to easily be able to specify the strength of opponent when looking for a game!). But it should be said there is also access to console mode so more experienced users can manage their use of FICS directly via the standard FICS commands

In addition to practical game play, Acid Ape Chess offers the user other possibilities. There are a suite of options for setting up, editing (via standard FEN notation) and analysing chess positions. Interestingly, these handle both Chess 960 as well as traditional chess positions.  There is also a dedicated tactical puzzles mode with 3 separate selection files with a total of 900 separate puzzles. These offer a good challenge for the experienced player and require you to solve the winning line move by move (hints are available and there is ready access to engine analysis for study purposes if needed). The puzzles are taken from real games and a nice touch is that the player details are also included. For added flexibility the user is able to also import puzzle collections and there are many freely available on the web.

In keeping with its aim to focus on the more specialist user,  Acid Ape Chess includes some more niche features which may be of real value to those who can take advantage of them. In particular, two worth mentioning are that the app offers:

  • connectivity with the DGT electronic chess board  via ‘bluetooth’ enabling games to be played directly on the lovely DGT wooden board for a more natural chess experience (sadly your reviewer can’t test this, not having access to a DGT board)
  • automatic integration of online Syzygy endgame tablebases (for up to 6 men)  which is invaluable for endgame analysis and practice (the benefit here is that mobile devices don’t have the storage capacity needed for the 6 men bases)

Practical use and presentation

Sadly it is all too common for apps with multiple features to be overly difficult and complex to use due to poor design. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than having a wide range of options if they can’t easily find or remember how to use them! This is not the case with Acid Ape Chess and the developer has clearly thought hard about the useability issues during app development.

AAC main screenAll the main features are available from a single well designed home screen  which is split into four theme areas:

  • Game (including engine play, puzzles and file management functions)
  • Position (setting up, analysing and playing )
  • Online play – covering FICS and ICC use.
  • Settings – including special features, engine management and options for making changes to visual aspects

Cleverly, all the sub-options for each theme are also directly available from the home screen by clicking on a small double arrow icon to the right of each theme area.

Navigation around the app is also straightforward.  A simple swipe system allows the user to move between different sections of the app which appear as separate open ‘multi-page’ windows – these can also be quickly accessed as a drop down list from a button on each screen. This means for example there is the potential to have several games open simultaneously and to switch between them for example when watching online and analysing.

AAC clocksThere are many simple and thoughtful touches to help the user – this includes the use of large digital clocks which is very helpful when playing blitz games either online or against an installed engine. The clocks don’t have to be visible if they are too distracting for you and the user can simply swipe again to display other relevant information such as a list of moves of the game etc.

Often the benefits of the design features only become apparent through more regular use. As a practical example, keeping a finger on the arrow keys speeds up the time control minute and second counters – important for setting up anything longer than AAC colour schemea blitz game quickly. In terms of customisation, a recent update to Acid Ape Chess has also introduced a good range of different board colours and styles together with several different pieces types to add some variation to the visual playing experience.

Notwithstanding all the positive aspects, I have one just one relatively minor gripe. When wanting a simple no frills game ‘mano a mano’ against an engine it would be nice to be able to play with just the board alone visible (preferably against a dark background) – ie  with reduced/no other information visible  – just the board – so I could fully concentrate on the game. Visually this might also give the impression of a bigger board as it can sometimes feel a little too small, for example when the oversize clocks are also displayed. The text font size is also rather small.

In addition to being well designed the app is also technically well produced. For such a sophisticated app (and notwithstanding its beta status) it proves reassuringly stable. This is not to say that it hasn’t crashed on rare occasions. But it is important to note that Acid Ape Chess is dependent on the chess engines the user installs into it – not all of which are necessarily 100% reliable or have the same features and options. And this is not always immediately clear. If problems are experienced, consider first if these occur when particular engines are being used. Also users may see a warning notification of high CPU usage and noticeable battery draining; in this case check whether engines have been left running and/or the relevant engine settings in use (eg number of cores used etc).

Developer support

At the time of review, Acid Ape Chess is being regularly updated (two releases have been made during the writing of this review!). Indeed the developer has announced plans for an even shorter release cycle. The good news is that the updates have been meaningful, improving functionality rather than simply fixing bugs.

Very pleasingly, the high quality of the app is equally matched by  the quality of the developer’s support of it.The developer is easily contactable via the app’s play store page and responsive to feedback as evidenced by the replies left to reviewers’ feedback.

Importantly, an active twitter account @AcidApeStudios is also maintained for news, feedback and support which is well worth a follow. (I’m always surprised more developers don’t use social media presence to promote and support their apps – maybe I’m following the wrong accounts!). As a last point, surprisingly there isn’t a support contact/feedback option within the app itself and this might be something worth considering in a future update.

 
Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free
  • Range of features and options are second to none
  • Ability to use a wide range of different chess engines
  • Tactical puzzles
  • Design and  ease of use


Dislikes: 

There are no real dislikes to this app – the app of course is not perfect and there are still a few tweaks and suggestions for improvement that could be made (not strong or significant enough to be a dislike!). These are outlined on the relevant section of the developer notes  page

 

Advertisements

SmallFish

smallfishReview details:
App version:  9.4.1
Device:  iPad 3
Operating system: iOS 9.2

Summary

A well crafted and presented app offering unparalled chess strength but a less than fulfilling playing experience for the average user.

SFSmallFish is available for both iPad and iPhone/Pod devices and is developed by Ted Wong who has released several other chess playing apps, including the related SmallChess. SmallFish incorporates the renowned Stockfish chess engine but sets out to improve the standalone Stockfish app with additional features and usability.

It is important to note that SmallFish is a totally free app and does not rely on any advertising or in-app payments; this is very welcome for users and is to the great credit of the developer (as of course the original ‘open source’ Stockfish developers also).

Strength and playability

There is little doubt, if you want to enjoy the feeling of having the strongest dedicated chess app in your pocket or palm, you won’t find better than SmallFish. Why? It’s becuase the app includes the latest official release of Stockfish (7.0) which is currently the strongest mobile chess engine available.

In itself the strongest engine isn’t any real use for practical game play – Stockfish even on a mobile device is more than a match for the best human players. The more important question is how effectively it can be ‘dumbed’ down to provide a reasonable challenge to players of different strengths. This is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve and can often be harder the stronger the engine is to start with.

The good news is that SmallFish has a range of playing levels helpfully split into different SmallFish_eloelo bands with narrative descriptions. These start at beginner (100-500 elo) and progress to World Champion (2700-3300). For example, the user can play against the engine at 1100-1200 elo which equates to the level of a casual player.

However, the bad news is that the elo calibration is fairly inaccurate. The engine tends to play significantly more strongly than the setting selected.  You can see a sample of SmallFish games played against differing opponents here to show this in practice. As an estimate the difference can be up to several hundred elo points. The problem is that inaccurate ratings give users a frustrating and negative experience. It is not good for a 1400 elo player’s ego to regularly be losing to a 1100-1200 opponent! The app as it stands is not suitable for beginners as it plays too strongly and unrealistically for the weaker levels in particular.

Leaving aside the issue of the accuracy of the levels, the other playing related options are pretty good:

  • There is enough variety in the available time controls which include sudden death, fischer and seconds per move levels.
  • Game and individual move analysis is where the strength of the chess engine really comes into play; SmallFish enables the analysis time per move to be preselected with differing levels of detail.
  • For experienced or ‘hard core users’, there are a range of technical options to alter the engine’s playing style and various engine parameters, thoughtfully guidance is provided to explain most if not all available ‘tweaks’.

Features

SmallFish includes all the standard features that might be expected in a high end chess playing app.

Input and output options are generally well catered  – for example in addition to ‘Save’ and ‘Load’ options there is the ability to export games via email and share positions using social media. However, one noticeable gap in this area is the lack of a facility to copy and paste games or positions to the clipboard for use in other apps.

SF online store
A nice touch is the inclusion of an on-line store. Normally these words in an app menu equate to opportunities for securing revenue through the dreaded ‘in-app purchase’ . But here the developer must be congratulated – the store offers the user totally free additional content in the form of downloads of a range of chess game collections, grouped by well known players, tournaments and well-known individual games- a nice touch indeed and one that would be even better with further content.

Practicality of use and presentation

SmallFish is a well designed and produced app and it is clear that the developer has put a lot of thought in to its development. App control is managed simply by four menu headings at the bottom of the screen which are logically described. In  more advanced chess apps menu options can become confusing and over involved. This isn’t the case with SmallFish and the options menu, though having plentiful sub menu headings doesn’t leave the user with a feeling of being ‘lost’ in the app.

There are also simple helpful features to help with general navigation and use. Two examples in particular worth highlighting include:

  • arrow bars in the bottom corners of the screen which are always visible allowing theSF_image user to quickly move back and forth through the individual moves of a game.
  • a graph to visually represent changes in the evaluation or score during the game. This allows the user to quickly pick out any pivotal stages of a game – tapping the evaluation ‘spike’ takes you to the relevant move in the game.

There are enough visual choices available for even the most demanding of users – namely

SmallFish_colour_optionsover 30 piece types and 13 different colour schemes. Yes, there a few of wacky and unusable combinations but more than enough attractive options to maintain interest and variety. A nice feature is that individual choices can be viewed directly from the menu so the user can quickly cycle through selections without leaving the menu.

Notwithstanding the generally positive experience with practical  use, there are a number of small but detailed improvements that could be made – you can find these specific suggestions on the developer page.  One omission that needs to be flagged up is the absence of a screen rotation option; it’s landscape only I’m afraid.

Developer support

If all app developers were as responsive, engaging and communicative as the developer of Smallfish, users would have little to complain about! User support is a strong point; the app has detailed guidance integrated within it and this includes some of the more technical aspects of the engine.

The developer positively encourages feedback and is happy to engage with users to make further improvements. A welcome but seemingly still relatively unusual option for app developers, is the use of active twitter account (@SCChess) to provide an addiitonal means of contacting and engaging with the developer. SmallFish has remained in active development over several years with regular updates (another is due shortly!). There is no suggestion this is likely to change in the short term so users have plenty to look forward to!

Overall

Likes:

  • Free and ad-free (including online store material)
  • Top strength engine
  • Clean and effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Developer support

Dislikes:

  • Inaccurate rating calibration
  • Inability to copy and paste games/positions via clipboard
  • No screen rotation

 

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..

 

Chess Genius

ChessGeniusReview details:                                                                           
App version:  2.6.4
Device:  Samsung S4 Mini
Operating system: 4.4.2

Summary:

A real quality app – polished and well designed, it is both strong and simple to use. Highly recommended.  

Chess Genius is available on Android devices as a universal app – meaning you don’t have to buy separate versions for your phone and tablets. It is also available for the iOS platform for both iPad and iPhone.

CG1The wide accessibility of Chess Genius is a postive feature – it can be used on older android devices (from 2.1 onwards) and this is also the case for the Apple version (usable on iOS 6.0 and above).  It is also worth mentioning that there are versions for other platforms including Windows phone and also for other (generally older) hardware including Palm and PC.

The app is available in Lite and full versions. The Lite version restricts the function of some elements after a certain time (for example the playing level reverts to Easy  mode after 20 moves). This review is of the full version of Chess Genius and costs £3.00 from Google Play Store or direct from the developer.

The developer of Chess Genius is Richard Lang. To the chess computer fanatic he will need no further introduction. For younger readers and everyone else, he was arguably the premier chess programmer of the decade from the mid 1980’s onwards. Lang won a record 10 chess computer world championships in this period with various incarantions of Chess Genius and its predecessor Psion Chess. His engines were incorporated into engine modules that powered the top of the range Mephisto dedicated chess computers of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. And it was his software which famously first beat Gary Kasparov in a serious game – the first realisation for many that human dominance in matters of chess strength was ending.

In short, the app’s developer has a long and established track record in delivering quality chess software. This app continues this reputation and should be a ‘must-have’ in your folder of chess apps.

Strength and playability

Chess Genius is a small compact app and feels well suited to a handheld device no doubt benefiting from Lang’s experiences of engine development with the memory restricted hardware of the 1980s.  In truth it is not the strongest chess engine – you can find an excellent rating list of chess engine apps here – If you want the maximum possible strength in your pocket or are interested in cutting edge position or game analysis you should look elsewhere (namely Stockfish and Komodo). But if you’re not a ‘serious power user’ and not of GM strength you won’t need to worry as you won’t notice in practice.

From the perspective of a player of average strength (probably 1300-1400 elo) I enjoy playing Chess Genius greatly and find it a well matched opponent between the Easy levels CG44 and 6 depending how I’m feeling. The games are both challenging and enjoyable and importantly feel realistic for my level of ability. The app shows no tendency for playing strong moves interspersed by an obviously weaker move or worse still downright blunders. In short it feels a natural game. For newer players, the easiest level (0) is indeed relatively easy – not random play but often ‘reasonable’ looking albeit meaningless moves interspersed with a smattering of gross blunders.

There are a good range of playing levels and time controls available. These start with 12 easy levels (which get progressively harder offering a good way for the user to monitor progress as they move up the levels). There are then 11 harder levels where the engine will move after a given amount of time (from instantly to a move every 3 minutes). In addition there is a healthy mix of options for sudden death games (ie Game in x minutes). These range from ‘bullet’ time control (1 minute) all the way up to Game in 2 hours. Whilst the number of playing levels is varied and numerous, they are all pre-defined and it would be a useful feature if the user could set their own preferred controls, for example via a dialogue box. Similarly, the option of Fischer (increment) or tourament style time controls (eg 40 moves in 40 minutes etc) would also be a welcome addition.

However, there is one surprising and disappointing omission in an app of this quality. Chess Genius doesn’t have any resign or draw function. This means that the user is forced to play out won games to the end to ‘win properly’ or make arbitrary decisions about the results of some games (for example assessing draws in certain positions) – neither which feels a satisfactory experience. (Of course it is not a problem – if the user wants to resign – the game can just be saved with 0-1 or 1-0 score but at least in this case it is the player that has decided!).

Features

It is important to bear in mind that Chess Genius does not try to be an ‘all-singing and all dancing app’. There is no online play, no puzzles or similar functions but these don’t feel to be omissions or oversights in the app. Chess Genius is just here to play chess and it has all the key features that would be expected in a serious chess playing app. For influencing strength, computer thinking whilst it is the user’s move (the so called ‘permanent brain’ option) can be enabled – this will make the engine play better. For more advanced users, the hash table settings can also be tinkered with.

CG_displayIn terms of practical game play there are a good range of simple but useful options which can be easily configured. This includes the ability to show available legal moves or highlight the last move played and also full flexibility about what engine analysis is shown. Helpfully the name of the opening played with ECO code is also shown.

Chess Genius has a database feature which offers a good and clear means for saving, storing and managing games. This includes basic database mainipulation namely creating, renaming switching between and deleting them. There are no advanced options such as any method of sorting games or looking for particular positions but this doesn’t feel a gap – the app just does what it needs to do. As the standard PGN format is used you can open pretty much any database of your choice. There is also a separate possibility to use the clipboard to either import or export individual games to or from other apps.

The only real weakness with Chess Genius’s file management capabilities is the lack of information displayed about any game that is loaded from a database. Once a game is loaded it is not possible to identify the individual players or to review any annotation or analysis when playing or stepping through the moves of the loaded game.

There is a tutor mode aimed at new or weaker players. Chess Genius will flag up to the user any bad moves played using a dialogue box, though unhelpfully it won’t give any guidance as to why it is a bad move. This is problematical on the lower ‘Easy’ levels as the bad move is not always immediately punished by the engine so the user is none the wiser about the mistake.

Practicality of use and presentation

CG_menuChess Genius is a well designed and presented chess app. It is a pleasure to use and is easy for the user to find his or her way about. The options and features are both intuitive and simple to select and importantly the app doesn’t feel cluttered or confused. There is a single menu of options which can be accessed from either left or right of the screen. The database options can easily by accessed via individual buttons on a single sub-menu and copying and pasting to the clipboard is also a single button from the main menu. It is all very straightforward which adds to the app’s enjoyability.

The app’s presentational aspects are also impressive. Visually, the boards and piece sets are clear and appealing and easy to view. Importantly, there is also an ample choice of display options which include 10 different piece sets and sizes, 7 board colours and also different selections for board style and background. In short there is plenty of variation to prevent the user getting bored and also crucially there are no gimmicky choices. (Some of the board colours are a little bright though!).

Chess Genius also has a particularly good design feature, which is often neglected in otherCG_landscape chess apps, in allowing the user to alter the size of the board. The options thoughtfully include a welcome ‘big board’ style which is very useful for mobile phone users together with the ability to rotate the screen.

Developer support

The app is well supported by the developer. There is a dedicated and informative website. This includes detailed instructions on how to use the app, a feature list and also FAQ. Importantly, the developer is also readily contactable via the site and invites user feedback.

Chess Genius is a mature app so frequent updates are perhaps not to be expected or indeed necessary. There have have been periodic releases and when these have occured they have included notable developments for example the most recent version in 2014 made significant improvements to the graphics and interface. It is very welcome to note that the developer has committed to give purchasers free life time updates (ie you won’t need to buy a new version) though this also maybe indicates the app is close to its ‘final’ version.

Overall

Likes:

  • Universal app with free updates
  • Suitable for older operating systems (android 2.1 and iOS 6.0)
  • Top quality engine
  • Clean and effective design and layout
  • Variety of board/piece skins
  • Big board option – ideal for phone users

Dislikes:

  • No draw or resign feature
  • Lack of information on loading games from the database
  • Tutor mode could be more informative

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..

*UPDATE* – August 2016
Version 3 of Chess Genius was released in late July followed by a number of subsequent minor bug fixes. The new update made a number of changes and improvements to the app. Probably the most important (and notable) has been a weclome extension to the range of time controls available. This addresses a weakness in the original review. The app now allows the user to selects numbers of moves and minutes and also the option of time increments per move (the so called Fischer time control). Sadly, the other ‘Dislikes’ above have not yet been addressed and the absence of a draw or resign option still feels a big omission in an app of this quality.

 

 

 

Komodo Chess Legends

Komodo chess legendsReview details:                                                                           
App version:  1.9
Device:  Ipod Touch 4th ed
Operating system: ios 6.1.6

Summary:

Use of a top quality chess engine fails to make up for shortcomings in practical use; a disappointing and frustrating experience that is best avoided.

This app (formerly known as Chess Legends) is available in both a free (Lite) and paid for version (costing £2.99/$2.99). This review is of the full version. In marketing itself the app places great store on its use of the Komodo chess engine which is among the two strongest currently available (as at Autumn 2015).

Strength

The app uses version 4.0 of the Komodo chess engine which although relatively old is still far more powerful than almost all others. So the app should play strongly…and it does. As such, and without artificial weakening the engine will play far better than anyone likely to be using it. The app recognises this and helpfully includes four different strength options ranging from ‘Easy’ to ‘Grandmaster’. However, the artifical weakening algorithm appears dubious as there seems to be little practical difference in any of the levels. In short ‘Easy’ is far from it, and as such it is likely to be a frustrating experience for the majority of potential users.

Other major issues include the fact that there is virtually no variation to the engines opening play (whatever strength level is selected) – essentially it appears to have no opening book of moves. Not only is this unrealistic in practice but also the lack of variation (unless the user keeps changing their opening play) is likely to mean that games will quickly become boring. Additionally irrespective of the strength setting the engine always responds instantaneously with its move, giving the user no thinking time which again is unrealistic behaviour from an opponent.

Features

Range of features is not a strength of this app. At the outset there are three options two of which appear to be the same ‘Play Friend’ and ‘Pass’N’Play, The former is in fact locked and a dialogue box states this will be for on-line play in a future edition.

Assuming you do want to play the computer, after selecting the desired strength (referred to above), there is a pleasing range of time controls available. These include sudden death (ie Game in x minutes), an incremental Fischer option (Game in x with y seconds increment) and interestingly a classic option which enables a variety of different time settings to be set (a traditional option for tournament play). Some further good news is the option to resign a game (particularly useful bearing in mind that Komodo is the opponent!).

There is the ability to save and load games (though rather annoyingly when loading a saved game it opens at the end of the game and there is no button to return it to the start without successively pressing the undo button).

The use of the Komodo name may be a good marketing tool but with this strength of engine the primary use is likely to be for analysis purposes, both of whole games and specific positions. It is very surprising then that the app includes no analysis feature at all, nor can the engine’s thinking even be seen during normal game play. This is a totally wasted opportunity, given Komodo is strong enough for its evaluation of a position to be both value and interest.

Practicality of use and presentation

The app is poorly designed with apparent little thought for the user experience. In terms of app navigation the biggest drawback lies in the fact that access to the settings and options that are available is not possible from the main menu screen. This means the user can only make changes during a game at the risk of disrupting their thinking and wasting their own clock time. Available options are accessed via a small triangular button to the right of the board.Komodo features

The default board colour (a garish green) and piece set isn’t particularly clear and the combination may not make for an enjoyable long term playing experience – the associated text for move notation and clock times is extremely small particularly so on a phone or ipod touch.

Komodo optionsThere is a small range of alternative options, if not in the chess pieces then in the board colours. Unfortunately the alternatives are perhaps even worse including lurid shades of red and blue.

A range of dialogue boxes pop up during mid-game to inform the user about check, but it is unnecessary and also annoying to tell this to the user when it is the user giving check (presumably this was their intention!). There appears to be no way to disable this practice.

Developer support

Basic instructions are included within the app (as a separate menu option) though even these are not easy to navigate (for example it is not clear which arrow bar to use when scrolling through the different pages – hint it is the white one!)

Updates to this app have been periodic over several years. Whilst this is a good thing, it is disappointing that none of the glaring weaknesses identified have been addressed in any of the new releases to date.

Overall

Likes:

  • Use of the Komodo chess engine
  • Wide range of different time controls

Dislikes:

  • Lack of variation in opening play
  • Ineffective engine weakening on easier levels
  • Lack of features including analysis function
  • Inability to change options/settings outside of a game
  • Poor visual experience

These are my thoughts; if you have used this app what do you think…..?