I spend a lot of time on my own. My family is in Austin, but I work in Sunnyvale, leaving me with a two-week period where I’m, in essence, a bachelor who doesn’t date. So when I’m in Sunnyvale, I revert to my true nerd state, spending extra time at work, obsessing over work-related details, making a nuisance of myself to workmates, writing posts for Gear Diary, and chatting incessantly about gadgets and tech. By the time I get back to my room, I’m usually so beat that I just flop down on my bed (after inhaling some food), and watch a video, read a book, or play a game on my iPhone. Usually it’s a combo–maybe an hour’s worth of movie or TV episode watching, some PvZ or Words with Friends or Glyph or Myst or something, and then some reading (in iBooks, lately, but also in the B&N app or the Kindle app) to wind me down.
Bear with me; there is a point to this rambling.
The other day, the folks at TouchPress were kind enough to provide me with their imaginative and fascinating iPhone version of Theodore Gray’s book The Elements. And I was so taken with it my first night back from work that, after inhaling my food, I sat and played with it for nearly two hours, only taking a break to talk to my housemate and, later, move the cat off my legs so I could sit up and start typing this review.
(See; I told you I would get around to the point!)
That’s being engrossed, folks!
Our review story begins when the iPad came out. One of the apps that was available for it at launch was The Elements, an iPadified version of Gray’s aforementioned book. I was sad and jealous, because it sounded like a wonderful app, and I really wanted to play with it, but Your Humble Reviewer just isn’t cartin’ around that kind of scratch right now. So when it became available for the iPhone, I was a happy camper. The very kind and helpful folks at TouchPress let me take a look at a review copy, and off I went.
One caveat to bear in mind: this app only works on your iPhone 4, as it requires the HD screen. This is not a downside from my perspective, but you, our humble reader, should know about it before purchasing.
The first thing you notice about the app is that, well, it’s durn beautiful. The images of all the elements are simply tremendous–beautifully photographed, well-rendered, and incredibly sharp (thanks to the Retina screen partly, I’m sure). All the elements have a photograph associated with them, and each photograph can be manipulated–a double-tap zooms in, your finger can rotate the image, and you can even flick it so that it spins dizzily.
While the main page–the full periodic table with a tiny thumbnails–looks a little too busy, the sharpness of the screen allows you to still see all the elements clearly, or at least far more clearly than anyone who is looking at such a tiny image would have a right to expect.
Navigating to the element descriptions is easy and intuitive. Tapping an element in the home page (the chart with the thumbnails) take’s you to that element’s page. You can also slide your finger along the chart, which pops up a (much larger) thumbnail of that element; when you lift your finger, you go to that page. And finally, on the Contents page, all the elements are listed both alphabetically and by their atomic number, so the literary folks and the science nerds can both look according to their needs.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, it looks cool, but what can be more boring than just looking at and reading about elements? I mean, c’mon, Doug! And that brings us to what I (as a writer) consider one of the best features: the writing style. Gray hasn’t just put together a bunch of bland descriptions of elements here; he’s included history, interesting facts and trivia, and done it all in a wonderfully accessible and irreverent style that draws you in. Further, while all-too-many writers sprinkle links throughout their text as if they’re salting a bland sandwich, Gray and the TouchPress folks have obviously given a lot of thought to what should be linked, and from where. You are as much drawn through the text as you are allowed to read along. It’s truly an excellent job.
(To me, the thing that most exemplifies the author’s approach is the fact that, with a tap on the main screen, you can listen to Tom Lehrer’s “The Element Song”. For Doug, anyone who likes Tom Lehrer gets extra credit.)
There are a couple of extra features on each element page as well. First, if you tap either the symbol or atomic number, you learn the pronunciation of that element. (You already know how to pronounce “hydrogen” and “oxygen,” sure, but what about something like “Ununhexium” or “Dysprosium”?)
Now, it’s not perfect. For one thing, it’s massive, clocking in at 1.21 GB–as big as most movie files. There’s also functionality that I would like to see, but doesn’t appear to be included. For example, in most iPhone apps, tapping the upper-left of the screen scrolls you to the top; The Elements doesn’t seem to have this. You “state” on the previous page is not saved; i.e. when you follow a link to another element, when you go back to the first element, you’re at the top of the text again. There’s no text search, which would be convenient. And finally, there’s no “back”, button–while you can step linearly through the elements, if you follow a link, you can’t go straight back where you came from. So if you clicked on the Carbon link from Hydrogen, you have to go back to the home page to get back to Hydrogen.
But those are minor quibbles, honestly. Overall this is a wonderful app. Can I recommend it? Well, at 10 bucks, it’s pricey. On the other hand, plain text books from Amazon or iBooks or Barnes and Nobel can cost more, and this is way more clever, interesting, and has a lot more functionality than a plain text-book. No, you can’t search, or go “back” from following a link, but really, that’s pretty minor compared to the overall functionality.
The Elements iPhone eBook app
MSRP: $9.99 in iTunes
What I Liked: The wonderfully irreverent tone; the mix of history and science info; the 3D photos; the excellent integration of links
What Needs Improvement: Would be nice if there were an option to just read the text; on the iPhone screen the table itself is rather small (but still sharp thanks to the Retina display). The price might put you off.