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I was recently asked if I had any recommendations for “electronic flash cards” for studying things like vocabulary, SAT terms, and foreign languages. It was a convenient coincidence, because I was recently looking for such a piece of software myself. You see, after years of saying, “One of these days I’m going to learn Spanish,” I finally stopped procrastinating and signed up to do just that at my local community college. So here I am, a student again, studying a topic that requires a certain degree of rote memorization.

After downloading and trying every “flash card” application I could find for Mac OS X, one clearly stood out from the crown: Loopware’s $12 iFlash 2.6 (   ). And it earns that distinction by being both the easiest to use and the most powerful.

iFlash organizes a set of “cards” in a Card Deck (an iFlash document). You add new cards to the deck, one at a time, by providing the text for the front of the card and then the back; you can use the tab key to quickly move between fields and cards as you enter text. (Alternatively, if you’ve already got your card content in a text file, you can import that file to have cards created automatically. You can even download existing Card Decks from the iFlash Web site via the iFlash menu. Some of these Decks—there are hundreds available—have thousands of cards!) You can rearrange cards by dragging them up or down in the card list, and you can also choose your preferred format for card text.

iFlash main window

When you’re ready to study, you click the Study button to start practicing. You choose whether to study cards in order or randomly, and whether you want to see the “front” or the “back” of the card first. iFlash will then begin a study session, displaying the chosen side of each card in turn; you use the mouse or keyboard to see the other side of each card, to mark whether or not you knew the card, and to cycle through cards.

iFlash card front
iFlash card back

That’s the most basic way to use iFlash, and one that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s carried around a deck of 3" x 5" index cards to study for a midterm. But if that’s all iFlash did, it would be just another flash card app. What sets it apart is its more advanced features. For example, for better organization, you can create categories of cards, which are very much like playlists in iTunes or albums in iPhoto; a card can belong to as many (or few) categories as desired. Categories are useful not only for browsing your cards—say, to quickly view all verbs for an upcoming quiz—but also for studying: When you begin a study session, you can choose to study a particular category instead of all cards.

iFlash categories

iFlash’s cards themselves are also more capable than other programs’ (not to mention than paper index cards). For example, cards aren’t limited to two sides; they can have an unlimited number. So if you were creating a study guide for the Periodic Table of Elements , each card could have sides for element name, symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, group, and so on. You could then study the elements based on any “side” (for example, iFlash could initially provide an element’s symbol and then rotate through the other card sides).

Other useful features, accessible via iFlash’s Card Inspector palette, include the ability to add an audio clip to each card, or even record audio directly onto cards—each card has its own record button. (This can be especially helpful for those teaching a foreign language; they can create a card deck for their students, with each card including a recording of that word’s correct pronunciation.) Alternatively, you can have iFlash read card text to you. You can also attach an image to a card instead of, or in addition to, text. These aren’t your grandmother’s index cards!

iFlash Inspector

iFlash also offers a number of advanced studying features. The most significant is the choice of studying methods. In Simple mode, you either know a card or you don’t (based on whether or not you mark the “Known” box on that card during studying). Once you know a card, it will no longer be shown when you study. In Score testing, each card has a number score that varies based on whether or not you knew the card the last time you studied it and, optionally, how long it’s been since you studied it. (If you know a card, its score increases; if you don’t know it, or if it’s been longer than a certain time since you studied it, its score decreases.) Once the card’s score reaches a certain number, it’s no longer shown. Finally, in Interval testing, each card’s score—based on whether or not you knew it the last time you studied it—determines how long it will be before you see that card again as you study. (A score of 4 means you won’t see it for 5 days; a score of 6 means you won’t see it for 10 days, and so on.)

iFlash Memorization

You can also limit the number of cards to be studied, restrict studying to cards with a score in a particular range, and use “slideshow” mode, which simply rotates through cards and card sides automatically.

Finally, iFlash offers a number of options for exporting your cards. You can export to a text file, using formats you define, but the option I find most useful is the ability to export your Card Deck to your iPod’s Notes feature or to an iPod Contact listing. You get only basic functionality—a scrollable screen of text that shows card sides in order—but I’ve been using this feature frequently to study my Spanish vocabulary on-the-go. (What would be neat—although battery-draining—for those with photo-capable iPods is the ability to export cards as images that can be viewed using the iPod’s photo slideshow mode.)

I’ve got to admit that when I downloaded iFlash, I didn’t expect this much functionality from a “flash card” application. In fact, a number of iFlash’s most useful features are things I never would have thought of, such as the advanced study modes and multiple card sides. If you’re looking for a study aid for yourself or your children or students, iFlash is the best in its class.

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