TransFire XP for iPhone
The first problem with TransFire XP, an iPhone app from TNT Creations that’s ostensibly aimed at helping you communicate with friends who speak different languages, is that it’s terribly obtuse. Finding your way through the app is more than a chore, it’s the iOS equivalent of backbreaking work. I’ve spent hours with the app, and still don’t feel qualified to teach you quite how to use it. My process is: Fiddle with things until they work.
The second problem with TransFire, then, is that things work at all only quite rarely. The app constantly locks up on my iPhone 4S, ignoring any taps, swipes, or other presses. When that happens—which is incessantly—relaunching the app presents a dialog box reading “Please wait, Reconnecting” with an OK button. I’ve waited and waited, I’ve tapped the OK button—nothing ever happens. I see this message literally every time I relaunch the app if it’s been running very recently, or unlock my iPhone to continue using the app after locking my phone for a moment. It never goes away.
There are rare occasions when the app, in theory, performs as advertised. But before I describe that behavior, let me stress once more that such periods of supposed functionality were as short-lived as they were uncommon.
Here’s how things are meant to work. You sign into one or more networks with TransFire. It supports (in the loosest sense of the word) Google, Facebook, and Yahoo; it also claims support for other networks is coming soon. Log into one or more of those networks, and TransFire should list your online friends for those networks. Though the app does visually distinguish which networks different users are signed into, there’s no straightforward way to get it to show you, say, only your Google Talk friends; you need to log out of all the other services instead, which is a rather clunky workaround.
For each friend, you can specify what language that individual prefers. Choose it, and TransFire will use Google Translate to convert your message into that language and translate your buddy’s messages back for you, as well.
For an app that focuses on chatting and language, however, TransFire seems to contain no affection for either: The tiny text entry field doesn’t use native iOS behaviors like automatic capitalization at the start of a sentence, or any other autocorrection. You might think it would be easier for TransFire to translate text not rife with touchscreen typos, but evidently TransFire’s developers prefer a challenge. Specifically, one they aren’t up to.
I can usually send a message or two to my contacts before TransFire freezes up. Using an ugly layout and poor font choice, I can see my message and its translation and my buddy’s reply and its translation, if necessary. But if I wait too long, or tap a different tab, or let the iPhone go to sleep, or switch to a different app for a moment, or simply look at the app askance, TransFire inevitably locks. More than once, it locked after receiving a message in a different chat, so I could see that a new message had arrived, but not the content of the message itself. Depending upon the network, that could often mean that the missed message was gone forever, never to be seen again.
I don’t like to feel so negatively toward an app. I spoke to TransFire co-founder Elik Topolsky about my concerns; he kicked off our phone call saying, “Probably every issue you’ve seen, we already know about.” That’s the good news. Topolsky explained that many of TransFire’s biggest problems stem from bandwidth issues on the server side, mostly due to the app’s group chat feature. I barely tested that feature, which lets strangers around the world communicate each other. According to Topolsky, though that feature worked well initially, it soon became overrun with adult chats that abused the service and have severely impacted its servers. He promises improvements will be made on both the server and the app sides, but offered no timeline.
In sum: TransFire XP’s hallmark feature is its ability to translate messages, for which it uses the publicly-available Google Translate engine. The translation works. But it wraps that feature inside an app that is currently terrible: It’s unusable, unattractive, and loses messages. Do not buy it.
[Lex Friedman is a Macworld staff writer.]