Digital Reading Room: Expert advice

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[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.]

It’s hard to build up an expertise on subjects as diverse as classical music, evolution, and graphic design. Arm your iPad with the right content-rich apps, however, and you can have the expertise of others right at your fingertips, as we learn in this week’s column.

The Orchestra

The Orchestra allows you to view many aspects of an orchestra in action. You can change what you view—the score, commentary, even closeups of different sections—on the fly.

After having used The Orchestra the past few weeks, I still can’t say that I’m a big fan of classical music. The app details, from multiple perspectives, the who, what, when, where, and why of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and five other pieces. After watching and listening, my understanding of how a symphony orchestra works and what’s going on in each piece increased exponentially (which isn’t saying much, but still).

More important, my appreciation of these classics—my enjoyment of them—has changed the way I listen to classical music. The app isn’t designed to create converts, and I’m not one—yet. But a seed has been sown.

Each of the pieces can be viewed in a variety of ways. On your screen, you can view separate close-up videos of the conductor, the woodwinds, and the strings at the top of the screen, listen to or read commentary by the conductor or musicians as the piece plays, and view the score in real time on the bottom of the screen. You can also read about the background of the piece—and its place in the history of orchestral music.

It’s easy to think of classical music as being static, but through the commentaries, histories, and detailed descriptions (both visual and textual) of each instrument, the app explains the evolution of individual instruments, the introduction of new instruments (and sections) to the orchestra, and, crucially, how the pieces were received when introduced. Of Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, which premiered on Dec. 22, 1808, the app reads, “Performances were, reports tell us, woefully under-rehearsed. Still, the defiant and populist Fifth created a stir. Here was an orchestra meant to represent the power of the people.”

Beautifully designed, The Orchestra, with its simple yet robust interactive multimedia elements, represents the power of the iPad, and skillful app producers, to make the complex accessible, and enjoyable.

Where to Get It: $14; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

The Magic of Reality

The Magic of Reality enables you to navigate through chapters and pages via pull-down thumbnail menus. However, it lacks other simple elements such as a table of contents, page numbers and bookmarks.

Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality may be a great book but it’s only a so-so mobile app. The subject matter couldn’t be broader—it’s a scientific, historical overview of the universe, solar systems, stars, planets, Earth, and the evolution of life. The text, illustrations, and animations are engaging and illuminating. However, while the app does include interactive elements as well as some audio and video—as advertised—they seemed inessential.

It’s undeniably enjoyable and fascinating, to zoom in and out of the entire universe, to try create the ideal frog via a kind of evolution simulator, and to go back and forth in time to see how humans evolved from the simplest organisms. Yet, The Magic of Reality app is essentially an e-book—one that lacks tools for bookmarking, note-taking, and word lookup. It’s also missing a table of contents and page numbers, providing only two ways to navigate throughout the app: By turning pages or via a drop-down chapter and page thumbnail bar.

“The Magic of Reality” is a terrific read for adults and older children. The app is about the real magic of the world around us, and in its own way, it’s colorful and magical as well. But it could use a healthy dollop of the practical.

Where to Get It: $14; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Unless you’re really clamoring for bells and whistles, save some money and try the less colorful, more practical Kindle version for $8.

FontBook—The Original Typeface Compendium

FontBook is aimed primarily at professionals in graphic design and publishing, but its Use Case view makes it handy for semi-pro and amateur publishers and designers as well.

Primarily an app for specialists, FontBook lets designers and publishers search for and browse a mind-boggling 36,734 typefaces. You can even buy them from within the app. FontBook is hardly new, but version 3.0, released last month, delivered a major update, adding universal compatibility to the app.

While professionals are likely familiar with FontBook, a tome which was first published in hard copy in 1991 by FSI Fontshop, the app is priced right for amateurs as well. Although it is in large part a typeface store display, the app allows designers to find fonts that fit their needs with relative ease. Amateurs may benefit most from the Use Case view, which divides fonts into categories, including Webfonts, Book Text, Newspaper, Poster Design, and Branding.

You can save a buck and find much of the same information (and purchasing opportunities) at the Web site. But the mobile app seems, to this amateur at least, to be easier to browse and use.

Where to Get It: $1; iOS App Store

News and notes

This ad for Sansabelt pants is one of many multimedia elements included in the iOS app version of Cris Beam’s Mother, Stranger story in The Atavist.

The Orchestra, mentioned above, is one of many Touch Press apps featured in this space. It’s well worth checking out the developer’s list of mobile offerings to see if its content-rich apps covering science, literature, technology, and geography strike your fancy.

The Atavist, a publisher of long-form nonfiction, released the first version of its iOS app in early 2011. Two years later, the publisher and app are going strong, with 21 titles in its catalog. You can get them all for a $7 three-month subscription. You can also buy the stories a la carte via in-app purchase for $3 each. Most of the stories are also available for $2 as iBooks, Kindle Singles, and Nook Books. But books purchased in The Atavist app include both a text and audio version, and some include other forms of multimedia as well.

This story, "Digital Reading Room: Expert advice" was originally published by TechHive.

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