A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of the iPhone 4 version of The Elements, a book/media/textbook/app that describes and demonstrates the Periodic Table of the Elements (with pictures of examples that could be manipulated). I loved it. In fact, I ended up absorbed in it so much that it put me behind on other reviews, because I had to tell you all about it.
Now the same development company, TouchPress (Get it? It’s on iOS, so you can “touch” and “press” the app, but it’s also a publishing company, so “press” has a double meaning? See? Okay; I’ll shut up now.), working in conjunction with Faber and Faber (no Animal House jokes, please!) and author and science writer Marcus Chown, have developed an app in a similar mode–Solar System for iPad.
How does it compare? Read on!
First of all, it’s really unfair to compare the two, so I won’t very much. The Elements that I reviewed was for the iPhone 4; iPad and iPhone apps aren’t really comparable, given the huge difference in screen real estate. But I will say this: they are both of similar high quality.
The first thing I noticed is the beauty of the thing. There’s an introductory “music” sequence with appropriately-“Cosmos”-esque music, which I ordinarily find kind of cliched and dull, but seemed perfectly appropriate here. (And since the original “Cosmos” came out right around 1980, you and/or your kids probably won’t find cliched.) It gives you a good idea of the beauty of the app.
The initial splash/navigation page is wonderful, and I think I could probably stare at it for a while all by itself. It shows all the planets and various moons (e.g., the “Galilean moons” of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), as well as other Solar System-related items as the trans-Neptunian “dwarf planets“, the Oort cloud, the asteroid belt, and so on. And a lot of the objects are moving, rotating about their axis. It’s wonderful, and makes great use of the large amount of iPad screen real estate.
There are multiple methods of navigation, all of which are pretty intuitive. You can tap on a celestial object on the Home page. Or you can get an alphabetical listing of the objects. Or once you are on the page of a particular object, you can choose an object from the visual list at the bottom of the page.
Each celestial object has a forward and back button at the bottom right-hand corner of the page, to allow you to go to the next or previous page for that object. In addition, a number of the pages have a “next” arrow at the end of the text section on each page. And this is my only real complaint: it’s inconsistent. I would prefer to have either all or neither, rather than a mix of both. I would also like to be able to use the iPad “sweep” motion to get from one page to the next.
Finally, there’s my favorite navigation item: in the upper right hand corner of page for each object is a link to an orrery, which (if you’re not a space geek like me) is a mobil model of the solar system.
For this app, the orrery moves. You can adjust the time flow, so that the planets and moons spin past with days passing in seconds. You can double-tap on any object and go to that object’s page. But even more, you can also zoom in and out with the iPad’s usual zooming controls; you can move around the Solar System with a finger; you can tilt and move around so that you can hover above the plane of the ecliptic, or be right on it. It’s quite impressive.
The descriptive text for each object, written by science writer Marcus Chown, is engaging and informative (if not quite as puckishly humorous as in The Elements). You can also tap a link on each object’s page to take you to the Wolfram Alpha science data for that object. Tap the Gallery button to see a bunch of images for that object as well.
Once again, I have to say that I think TouchPress (and Mr. Chown and Faber and Faber) have really hit a home-run here. This is a lovely app that uses the capabilities of the iPad really well. While I think there is still room on the iPad for further development of what constitutes a “book” (I would love to see a novel on the iPad that was more than just text, for example.), this is truly an excellent app. It’s beautiful, functional, easy to navigate, informative, interesting . . . what more do you want? If you’re not into the Solar System, okay, maybe you won’t like it, but you’ll still appreciate it. (My daughter doesn’t care beans about science, and she was totally sucked in and took my iPad away from me for a good 30 minutes.) And if you’re not interested in that stuff, what are you reading this review for, huh?
Yup, it’s a bit pricey, true, but man do you get a lot for your money. Doug says: worth the scratch.
What it is: Solar System for the iPad
What I liked: Everything–like a good book, it’ll be days before I get through it all
What needs improvement: “sweep” navigation to allow you to go from one “page” to the next in the descriptions, but that’s really a nit