Digital Reading Room: Package deal

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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.]

Compelling content only takes an app so far if there’s no easy way to access it. One app we look at in the latest installment of Digital Reading Room embraces that idea; two others do not.

Abraham Lincoln Interactive Biography

Most pages in Abraham Lincoln Interactive Biography are similar to this one, mixing text with an image. Many of the images can be enlarged, but that is, to a large extent, about as interactive as the app gets.

This straightforward biography of Abraham Lincoln is a solid account of the life of America’s 16th president. Aimed at young readers, it recounts Lincoln’s life in chronological fashion, beginning with his humble youth in a small log cabin in Kentucky. The app’s design pushes you to read the narrative from beginning to end—you won’t find bookmarking, highlighting, note-taking, and other fundamental ebook features.

The app’s interactive elements include two brief videos, a small collection of images that you can enlarged, and a quotes “slideshow” that is not a slideshow. It is a collection of images with Lincoln quotations, but each one can only be viewed singly; a quote superimposed on an image fills the screen after a tap on the “slideshow” button; to see another quote, you close the “slide” and repeat, tapping again on the “slideshow” button.

Within the text of the ebook itself, you can enlarge many images, and tapping on underlined text passages, such as names of people and battles, brings up a pop-up box with additional explanation—a short biography or piece of related history and sometimes an image.

The app crashed several times on my iPad, which was more than a minor annoyance because each time you launch the app, you return to the app’s opening intro video. The ebook lacks scroll bars, page numbers, and any navigation method beyond scrolling through page after page to return to where you left off, a tedious process after you’ve made fair progress. It’s a shame because well-written text and carefully-selected images are lost amid a poor digital package.

Where to Get It: Free sample; $5 for entire app; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Pass.

The WWW Conference

Herbie Hancock (left), Richard Saul Wurman (center), and (right) share a light moment during The WWW Conference.

Richard Saul Wurman, who created the TED conference in 1984, may be the best-connected person in the world. In September 2012, he staged the first WWW Conference, which featured 24 two-person discussions, with Wurman acting as an emcee of sorts. Wurman introduces the pairs and tries to explain why he thinks they’ll have a good discussion, and then usually raises a general thoughtful or philosophical question to get what he calls an “improvised discussion” going. Just a few of the better-known participants included Yo-Yo Ma, David Blaine,, Mark Cuban, Dan Ariely, Norman Lear, and Stephan Wolfram.

Unlike TED, which encourages the presentation of knowledge and ideas in short and snappy bites, the WWW format is subdued—though it’s not clear whether this is Wurman’s intent. Part of this stems from Wurman’s somnolent introductions and conversation-starters, and part from what seems to be true puzzlement among some of the participants about what they’re expected to do or say. So they improvise, as intended.

The discussions themselves are a mixed bag—many include flashes of brilliance and humor and interesting exchanges. Finding these, however, requires great patience. Most conversations are between 20 to 50 minutes long. The app lacks some basic design features that would help users navigate through the material—there’s no way to pause mid-discussion and pick up from where you left off, for example. Each time you open the app, you start at the beginning. The app doesn’t include bookmarking or note-taking capabilities, and it also requires an Internet connection; there is no option to download some (or all) of the video to your iPad.

The app also includes bios of the participants as well as some additional material—links to personal Web sites, Wikipedia pages, and Amazon, a few photos, and videos from other sources, for example.

This falls far short of the claim made, in bold type, on the conference Web page that says “The app will be a new modality … It will present information in a way that has not yet been achieved.”

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Pass.

The Classical

The baseball-themed issue of The Classical, available through iOS's Newsstand, includes a piece about the Astrodome.

If you like reading high-quality sports writing that’s a bit off the beaten path, it’s worth checking out The Classical, a recent entry to Apple’s Newsstand entry that evolved from the website of the same name.

Each monthly edition of The Classical focuses on a different theme; for example, the August issue, “Being There,” features terrific stories on sports venues and the fan experience. One is a loving paean to unusual charms of the Metrodome, the former home of the Minnesota Twins, and its troublesome inflated roof (it had a whitish hue that frequently resulted in outfielders “losing the ball in the roof,” collapsed under the weight of snow four times, and sometimes resulted in unusual plays). Another discusses the charms and deficiencies of Nashville’s old minor league ballpark, while a third discusses the Jumbotron wars between NFL teams who believe that fans who pay $100 or more for the privilege of watching in person will stay home if they can’t watch a great video feed of the action going on right in front of them.

Previous issues featured baseball and basketball themes, with articles tending to focus on the offbeat, such as the unpredictable success of the free-swinging Pablo Sandoval and an examination of the rare times when a non-pitcher takes the mound.

There’s nothing fancy about The Classical—each piece has a single illustration, and there are some, but not many, links to related material on the Web. But the digital offering works simply because the subject matter is provocative and the writing is consistently excellent.

Where to Get It: Free (Subscriptions cost $30 for 12 monthly issues, $3 for monthly auto-renewing subscription, and $4 per individual issue) iOS App Store

The Verdict: A definite download for sports fans who like to think outside the box.

This story, "Digital Reading Room: Package deal" was originally published by TechHive.

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