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Mental Case reinvents the flash card

Sang Tang

Education is deeply imbued in the Apple DNA. In Apple's early days, the education market served as a base from which it would grow from and, in the process, introduce many of us to personal computing as well as a new way of learning.

Similarly, the iPhone has the potential to change the dynamics of learning. The device's multi-touch display has not only reinvented and breathed new life into apps that had previously lived on other platforms, but has also spurred the creation of a new class of learning apps.

One of these apps is Mental Case, a flash card application available on both Mac OS X and the iPhone/iPod touch. At its very core, Mental Case's main goal is to facilitate the flash card creation and studying process.

The organization schema of the desktop app has elements that resemble iTunes. Flash cards, which are referred to as "notes," would be akin to songs in iTunes, while a "case" is the equal to a playlist. And, like iTunes, where playlists can reside in folders, cases can reside in a "case collection."

Creating a note is accomplished by using the Command-N keyboard combination -- or by clicking on the corresponding icon in the upper left for more mouse inclined users. Like a number of similar apps, Mental Case supports image-based flash cards, which for some better facilitates the learning of more visual-intensive material, such as an art history class.

But what makes Mental Case stand out against its counterparts in the image realm is the ease with which images are obtained. In addition to drag and drop support of image files, Mental Case has built-in support for screen grabs as well as iSight camera support. For instance, a 1 MB bitmap image could be reduced significantly in size by screen capturing it. Meanwhile, iSight camera support could facilitate quick snapshots of images -- such as your hands for sign language flash cards -- that aren't resolution intensive or dependent.

Similar to how iTunes syncs your digital media with the iPod, the desktop version of Mental Case desktop ($24.99 regular price/$14.99 for students and teachers) can sync (via WiFi) your flash cards with its iPhone/iPod touch siblings, of which two versions exist: Mental Case Lite [iTunes link] (Free) and Mental Case [iTunes link] ($2.99). Viewing and studying flash cards is available on both versions. And while transferring flash cards from the desktop to the iPhone/iPod touch is supported on both the lite and paid version, syncing (the merging and reconciling of data between two devices) is available only on the paid version.

So, why would one need to sync data in the first place? Because the paid version allows you to create flash cards, with most of the functionality of the desktop version carried over. For image-based flash cards, the paid version has hooks to both the iPhone/iPod touch's photo library and built-in camera (iPhone only). For efficiency sake, I'd venture to guess that flash card creation on the iPhone/iPod touch will be used more sparingly than the desktop version, or for more special purposes.

The paid-for version also provides free access to download privileges to the Flashcard Exchange database, and this is the key differentiator between it and the the lite version. Flashcard Exchange is the world's largest database of electronic flash cards, with a library of over 21 million user-generated flash cards. Which means that someone else may have already done the dirty work for you; the only thing that's left is for you to download it to your iPhone/iPod touch (or you could download a .csv file and have Mental Case import it).

In addition, you could create and share flash cards with others; and, if they choose to share them, you can have access to their flash cards as well. Although a $19.95 fee is usually required for lifetime membership to Flashcard Exchange, complimentary access is provided for with the purchase of the Mental Case iPhone/iPod touch app.

However, it should be noted that this complimentary access provides for downloading privileges on the iPhone/iPod touch only -- not via the export option on the Flashcard Exchange site. But, this shouldn't be an issue given the fact that you could sync flash cards downloaded on your iPhone/iPod touch back to your desktop.

Despite its features and ease-of-use, Mental Case is not without its faults, and the most evident one in my view is the lack of support for reordering flash cards. That throws a wrench in the engine if you're accustomed to a more progressive and chronological way of learning flash cards. For example, say you've just completed sections one through four of a chapter, and later decide to come back and add more content to section two -- and you want it next to the section two material. Well, in this case, the newly added section two material will be filed when it was created: at the very end.

This aside, Mental Case provides a very nice balance of functionality, desktop and iPhone/iPod touch integration and ease-of-use that make it the leader of the pack in the flash card genre for Mac users.

(Until the end of August, TUAW readers can save 20% off the regular price of the desktop version of Mental Case by using the following promotional coupon: CPN8866132290)

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