Bing Strikes the Right Tone on iPad
Bing, like Google, is now offering a dedicated search app for the iPad. Bing's offering isn't linked to a laundry list of other services like mail and calendar apps, though -- Microsoft's app is focused entirely on search. It features a simple, attractive interface as well as an interesting circle-to-search feature, and it builds in just enough features to be more useful than a built-in search bar but not overly cluttered.
Rattling off a Web search on your phone or tablet is a pretty dead-simple thing to do. Does it really need its own app? That depends.
The iPad's out-of-the-box Safari Web browser has a built-in search bar, and you can set its default search engine to Google, Yahoo or Microsoft's Bing (all apologies, Ask.com fans). It's just a text box, but it will usually suffice for a quick, heat-of-the-moment query.
Other searches, though, may require a little more attention. You might want to target it to a certain category of results. Or, if you're a particularly big fan of a certain search engine, you might use that site as your daily informational diving board, the place you go for your morning shot of news and weather.
That's why search engines make their own mobile apps. A mobile app can offer deeper interaction and a snappier interface than a bookmarked page in Safari. And of course, once you're using a branded search app to do you surfing, your adventures out there in the great big Web are really taking place within that app's built-in browser, for better or for worse.
The Big Three (or Big One and the two dwarfs, perhaps?) search providers all have offerings on tap for iPhone, but it's taken a little longer to enhance those apps into iPad material. Just recently, Microsoft put the finishing touches on its Bing app for iPad.
Just Bing, Doing Its Thing
When you fire up Bing for iPad, you're greeted with the engine's usual gallery of hi-res photography -- an ever-changing collection of interesting images from around the world, complete with informational tidbits. None of this has much bearing on what you can actually search for, but hey, free eye candy and fun facts.
The really useful functions are located in the top and bottom margins. Along the top, you have your typical search term bar, as well as icons for a voice search, a list of specific search categories and a settings menu.
Along the bottom: Weather, News, Maps, Movies, Trends and Finance.
Let's get this obvious part out of the way: If you hate the results Bing brings you as a desktop search engine, you won't have much use for this app. Personally, Google is my default searcher, though I venture into Bing now and then. I find Bing to be consistently capable, and once in while it'll come up with a good result that didn't filter anywhere near the top of a Google search.
Typing terms into the text bar in the upper-left corner of Bing's home interface sets you off on a general search. It didn't appear that anything at the top of the results page was a straight-up advertisement, even when I typed a highly etail-ready term like "hats." specialized results are embedded in the list -- a few entries from the top you might see a local search to show you relevant results in your vicinity, for example. And at the bottom you might find special sections with examples of results in Bing Shopping and Bing News.
Turn the iPad to landscape view, and the results page offers new options in the sidebar. You can narrow down your search to the engine's News, Shopping, Local, Videos or Images sections. You'll also see your search history and a list of related searches.
Bing for iPad includes a voice search feature. Like most voice search apps, results were good but not perfect. It took three tries to get my query "filthy desert creature" (inspired by a home screen image of a small wild cat) to go through, for example, but my nine other tries succeeded after the first utterance.
The Settings menu gives you a basic set of controls -- a safesearch selector, history and suggestions toggles, and whether you want it to figure out where you are automatically or have the option of selecting a city yourself. There's also a history and cookie clearer.
Along the bottom are gateways for quickly glancing at news, weather and other information. The News function is especially good-looking -- each section gets its own row of stories (photo plus headline) that can be scrolled through with a swipe. However, the stories are presented as single news sources from top sites like CNN and the AP, not as news bundles a la Google News or Bing's desktop news pages.
Head to Head
Unlike Google's search app for iPad, Bing doesn't offer to sign a user in from the interface. That's because Google's mobile app not only covers search, but also links to apps for other services, and some of them (email and calendar, for example) are highly personal.
Bing's app doesn't even want to know who you are; it just wants to focus on search. Those who experience vaguely ominous feelings when searching the Web while signed on under a Google account may appreciate Bing's focus. Besides, iOS's own Calendar and Mail apps work quite well when synced with a Google account.
Another difference between Bing and Google's iPad app is interface. A few months ago, I wrote that the swipe motions used in Google's search app felt awkward on the iPhone, and that carries over to a lesser degree in the company's iPad app. Bing uses a swipe feature too, but in a much simpler way. You just can swipe across the top of a page to take you back to what you were doing before. Searches are stacked sort of like sheets of paper, one on another. It's a little simpler than the up/down/side-to-side swiping you see on Google's app.
One of the more interesting features built into Bing's integrated browser is the ability to circle to search. Along the top of any Web page, you'll find a set of icons -- one for emailing/copying the link, one for highlighting the term, a reload button, back and forward toggles and a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass is a search feature that lets you select a word or term with which to perform a new search. You can draw a circle around the text (kind of like drawing a circle in MS Paint, actually), then click what's inside it, and suddenly that term is plugged into the text box, no copy/paste required.
Existing Bing fans who have iPads will like this app, though they probably have already found and installed it. If you love Bing and have an iPad but haven't grabbed this yet, get thee to the App Store.
But Bing is still a minority search engine. On the desktop, old search habits die hard, so it might be nearly impossible for Microsoft to pry some Googlers away from their engine of choice. But mobile devices represent a new arena and the potential for new habits to form. If you're looking for a search app but think Google's interface feels a little uncomfortable, and you want one that's focused more closely on search rather than search plus a dozen other services Google offers, Bing might be worth a glance.