Digital Reading Room: Ready for liftoff

[As tablets get more powerful, with more memory and sharper-looking screens, their apps are getting a makeover. Increasingly, mobile apps employ multimedia—combining words, pictures, audio, and video—in new and interesting ways. In our Digital Reading Room series, we’ll look at some eye-catching multimedia apps and tell you which ones deserve a place on your mobile device.]

Space may be the final frontier, but it’s also proving to be a fertile ground for tablet apps, as we showcase another iPad offering about space exploration. Other apps—like Tapestry—exploit the benefits of a touch interface while our third offering, Geeks Behind the Iron Curtain, shows that sometimes ebooks enjoy an edge over apps.

The Space Shuttle Era: Stories from 30 Years of Exploration

The Space Shuttle Era includes dozens of brief stories written by the astronauts—like this piece by astronaut Mike Foale on a 1995 space walk—as well as many photos from astronauts.

The Space Shuttle Era, adapted from a special edition of The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, provides an excellent overview of the space shuttle program. It succeeds by telling the story through the eyes of those who participated while simultaneously explaining the program’s sophisticated technologies in ways which even non-engineers can understand.

The shuttle era began in 1971, when NASA contracted with North American Rockwell to build the shuttle’s main engines. During the next four decades the program had a rocky history—and, as app conveys, it couldn’t have been otherwise. That’s because NASA wasn’t just building and launching a reusable spacecraft: It was also playing a major role in constructing the International Space Station and working with hundreds of far-flung contractors, each assigned their own complex piece of the puzzle. The technologies were cutting-edge, often very difficult and dangerous to test, and always evolving. At the same time, the shuttle program faced extraordinary pressure in the halls of Washington and in the public’s eye.

The app could easily have become unwieldy or, alternatively, oversimplified. But by mixing stories told from many points of view with often-stunning photos and brief videos, the finished product strikes just the right balance. The Space Shuttle Era is a worthy celebration of the shuttle program and the men and women who lived—and sometimes died—in its service.

Where to Get It: $6; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

Tapestry: Collections of Tappable Stories

Tapestry is a tap story reading app that enables you to download curated tap essays on a variety of topics.

It began with Robin Sloan’s superb standalone app Fish: A Tap Essay, a remarkable rumination on “liking” versus loving something on the Internet, told via a series of flash cards that you tap to advance the story. Tapestry builds on Sloan’s innovation by, as its name suggests, providing access to a carefully-curated but substantial number and variety of similarly-formatted tap essays. Users can create their own tap essays at the Tapestry website to share with others; some are even chosen for the in-app collection. The essays, which are free to download, are often thought-provoking and enjoyable. And you just may be inspired to create your own.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store, Google Play

The Verdict: Definitely download.

Geeks Behind the Iron Curtain

Geeks Behind the Iron Curtain includes fascinating details about how Western cultural material—in this case, Disney—as obtained despite being generally banned.

Geeks Behind the Iron Curtain is a good read and a lousy app—perhaps the kind of thing a publisher would receive if it forced Wendell Berry to make one if his poetry collections iPad-friendly. Geeks, the app, is an ebook, one that has fewer frills than a simple PDF file, save for the occasional embedded (and fixed-size) YouTube video. You can’t select text to highlight or copy, you can’t bookmark—in fact, you can’t do much of anything but read.

The good news is that the subject matter, which focuses on the fascination for and development of technology in Yugoslavia from the 1920s to about 1990, is often interesting and sheds much light on culture in the former Soviet satellite during a time that most Westerners know little about. The many, well-written short chapters cover everything—early radios, superhero comics, a fascination with Disney, rocketry, calculators, and computers represent just a small sampling. The app also includes many illustrations.

There is a Kindle version of the book, and it’s different in significant ways. Unlike the app, it lacks a table of contents and illustrations, which makes it less appealing than the tablet version. But the Kindle book has simple advantages—the ability to bookmark and highlight, for example—that make it a better choice for most readers.

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Spend a buck more for the Kindle version.

News and Notes

The waiting game continues for a few apps mentioned previously in this space—like the second issue of the serial graphic novel app Bottom of the Ninth and the second issue of MVP Magazine. But the wait is over for fans of the Fab Four: The second installment in the eight-part graphic-novel app The Beatles Story is now available through an in-app purchase.

This story, "Digital Reading Room: Ready for liftoff" was originally published by TechHive.

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