Up to now, popular science software has been the poor cousin to popular science books, but the world is changing, and leading the charge is Apple’s iPad.
Back in the good old days, when science fiction looked into the future, it portrayed people reading information on portable electronic pads. Reading from the screen of a computer has never worked effectively, whether it’s a laptop or a desktop – but the new breed of tablets, with the iPad at the fore, have brought that science fiction dream alive. This is a book plus – and the ‘plus’ has a lot going for it
The Solar System app by experienced popular science author Marcus Chown is still a book. There is enjoyment to be had by just reading linearly through the text. But there is much more to it than that. Key words in the text are highlighted, and a tap brings up a box on them. Each page is illustrated, and usually those illustrations are interactive. So, for instance, on the page about the Earth that shows our planet, you can rotate the globe with a flick of your finger, switch the clouds on and off, zoom in, or flip over to the orrery, flying with the Earth into its position in the solar system.
What is wonderful about the iPad is that this is all so natural. I didn’t need instructions to tell me I could rotate the objects I was looking at, or zoom in on them, I just assumed it would work and it did. Each of the items on that home screen, from the Sun to the Oort cloud has one or more (often quite a few more) pages about it. And the navigation options are considerable. As well as moving through linearly, you can jump from that home screen, use a spatial navigation bar at the bottom, flip to a gallery, examine data – Solar System is excellent, both in terms of content and as a demonstration of why tablets are going to catch on it a big way.
If I had any criticism it would be that the text is perhaps aimed a little too low – I would have liked a little more meat in it – and the text items are short even by Dorling Kindersley standards (which is probably the best print comparison of an app like this). But that simplicity does mean that it is accessible to a wide range of readers, so that perhaps isn’t such a bad thing. There also should have been lots of external linking, which is easy to do transparently from the iPad. I know it’s a pain for the developer, as they would have to keep the links up to date, but it would have made the app even stronger. Oh, and I found the music track by Bjork irritating – but you can skip that.
If you have an iPad, you need a copy of this application. At £7.99/$13.99 it’s good value as an illustrated book, but is so much more. And if you don’t have an iPad, the Solar System app is a strong plus to add to your pros and cons for buying one. Those who argue that a Kindle is just as good for reading books on as an iPad may have a point for traditional text – but a book like this would be inconceivable even with colour e-ink. It is beautiful… and you know you want it!
Review by Brian Clegg