Chess-wise Pro for iPad

[Chess-Wise Pro for iPad]Chess-wise Pro for iPad

Has FICS client, but crashy
and needs work on UI

Rating by Mike D: 2.0 stars

One of the features that attracted me to Chess-wise Pro was the FICS client. As persistent socket connections were once disallowed on iOS applications, Apple’s withdrawal of that limitation has meant that playing online chess against decent strength opponents is now possible; and enjoyable.

The ability to play chess online from the comfort of a sofa means casual blitz is possible. Tablets moves the serious chess player away from a mouse-dominated game towards something a lot more natural; back to the good old days.

Online play with FICS

In terms of online play, Chess-wise Pro doesn’t disappoint. Right off the homepage of the application there’s a button simply titled “FICS”. This logs you into the Free Internet Chess Server with a guest login, and you are then presented by a visual list of game offers. Tap one to select, and Murphy willing, you’re playing a game.

[Chess-Wise Pro iPad board]

The board is very decent. I’d prefer the last move notation to be clearer, perhaps not camouflaged in the app title bar. Since on a tablet there’s space around the board in both landscape and portrait modes I’d have preferred to see the last two or three moves listed.

I haven’t really played on FICS for about a dozen years, I use it just to watch relayed games of Super Grandmaster tournaments and matches. But I did play a few games for the purposes of this review.

I liked this form of online play. I actually played on FICS while on my commute into work on the train, over 3G. I am impressed that the connection didn’t drop, and I played several games.

I very nice feature is that Chess-wise Pro stores all your FICS played games into a PGN file for later review. A stonkingly useful idea. (Pity the games against the computer aren’t saved to their own database too!).


Chess-Wise pro also impresses with it’s chess database functionality. Initially this points to three online databased covering covering Tournaments, Matches and World Championships. Plus a database for your FICS games that’s populated automatically.

The Database button takes you to a navigatable list of PGN files. Selecing a database gives you a three column quick display mode, which allows you to skim through the selected database, play through the game. Export it to email or the clipboard (I have no idea how this is then accessible to other applications, I didn’t even know the iPad had a clipboard).

[Chess-Wise Pro iPad game search]

The database is definitely useful, but a little clunky. Searching for games between two grandmasters returns a list of results, but it’s missing the year the game was played, and it’s not clear what the order of games is. It’s these little details that hinder this being a must-have chess app.

Interface quirks and bugs

The user interface has a number of flaws and usability gaffs. It certainly needs improvement

The start screen is confusing.

It’s hard to tell what the difference is between a button showing one person, and an icon showing one person and a clock. Both take you to a board to play against the computer, one allows you to set the chess engines’ average thinking time per move, the other sets a time limit for both players. Personally, they are both facets of a timed game. The FICS button only makes sense for people who know what FICS is.

The start page has a button usefully titled Help, which contains a brief overview of the application. But inside the Help itself there is no obvious mechanism for exiting back to the start page. I had to force quit the application and restart to get back to the start page.

Thankfully it’s very hard to screw up the understandability of a chess board. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the icons around it. When you are playing a game, the house icon (recognisable as a home button) triggers a “New Game” dialogue. To get back to the start screen of the application you need to tap the icon that’s either supposed to be a target or a 2D tornado funnel.

Forcing the chess engine to move is done by tapping the rotate 180 degree icon. In other chess programs this icon is immediately recognisable as the rotate board option. Chess-wise uses an downward-pointing arrow for rotating a board, an icon I initially interpreted as a “force engine to move” button.

In play, a couple of times the chess engine has hung and refused to move. Most notably when it’s running out of non-losing moves. It’s almost like it’s petulant and skulked off. The activity indicator keeps animating, which suggests there’s some processing going on, but nothing happens, but the UI is still responsive.

In the analysis mode I’ve had a few weird crashes right after the analysis engine carries out moves like invisible white knight takes white queen on c3.

I wanted to like this particular chess app. The FICS client is the strongest feature here, and probably the prime reason for purchasing. The additional features are not at an acceptable quality level yet, which means there is a lot of potential for this application to be the one essential app for serious chess players. The UI needs improvement.

Shredder Chess for iPad

[Shredder Chess for iPad]
Shredder Chess for iPad

Strong engine in an engaging interface

Rating by MikeD: 4.5 stars

The first strong chess engine to land on the iPad is Stefan Meyer-Kahlen’s Shredder. Shredder has won a dozen computer chess world titles since it’s inception in 1993, and is part of Chessbase’s range of supported engines.

The original Shredder chess engine is written in ANSI-C, that portability explains why it’s the first serious chess engine to arrive on the iPad. But Shredder is perhaps the only serious commercial chess engine that can be called cross-platform, supporting Windows, Mac and Linux. The Linux version requires Java, and the Mac OSX version seems to be native.

Shredder has made the transition to the iPad’s ARM-based A4 chip. Obviously the low-power single-core CPU isn’t conducive to deep brute-force calculation, but it still plays a very decent strong game with a customisable strength from 850 to 2600. Though it remains to be seen (through extensive testing) how accurate these rating are to real-world ratings.

Shredder keeps track of your playing performance long term and over the last 10 games, and adjusts it’s playing strength based tailored match your own. This offers an interesting game (since who wants to be demolished game after game?). Every time you lose a game, Shredder drops it’s playing strength relative to your own, and as you win, Shredder notches up it’s playing strength.

The interface is initially a little clunky, with the main configuration screen essentially being a splash page. But the meat of the application is a high-quality full-size chessboard. The touch-drag interface very natural and pleasing. The clunk of chess pieces being plonked down is satisfying. Chess software and touch screens are a dynamite combination.

[Shredder Chess for iPad]

I’d prefer to be able to see all the moves (or be able to scan through them), and use that to jump to a specific point. Navigation is only forward and back currently. The speedometer is a nice feature showing the evaluation of the position, though at times it is difficult to figure out which direction means the position is in your favour.

I’m hoping updates will fix some of these oddities in the interface as well as offering some serious chessplayer features, like chess databases and PGN support (perhaps combined with Dropbox, which seems to be the default way to share data with an iPad).

As an aside to just playing chess, Shredder offers a series of tactical puzzles, about 2000 of them. Every puzzle is worth 10 points, both spending too much time and making an incorrect move lose you points. The positions are interesting, although at times it’s difficult to figure out quickly who is to move and which direction they are moving. It shows off yet another facet of chess software and touch screen interfaces: their potential value as a teaching or training tool.

There’s also an analysis function which is useful for the occasional check whilst on the move. I wouldn’t be using it for serious tournament preparation, except as a form of blunder-check, but useful for lightly examining a game.

Shredder is stunning on the iPad. It feels perfectly suited to the touchscreen. At the current price of £5.49 it is a very worthwhile investment for club players or regular tournament players.