Digital Reading Room: Ghosts of Christmas present

[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.]

Plenty of apps hope to put you in the holiday spirit, but far too many substandard offerings could easily turn you into a grinch. That’s why our regular look at the content-rich offerings on mobile app stores looks to find a few downloads that will keep your spirits bright this season. The emphasis here, like much of the App Store’s holiday selections skews toward Christmas, but we’ll have a look at Hanukah apps elsewhere on the site as we get closer to the start of the Festival of Lights. (Update: You’ll find a round-up of six Hanukah apps on Macworld.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This familiar tableau exemplifies one of the reasons why the app version of A Charlie Brown Christmas is, for the most part, a charmer: It captures the old in a fresh fashion; as the narrator speaks, his words are highlighted, making it easy for beginning readers to follow along.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but Loud Crow’s other mobile adaptation of a Peanuts Gang classic fares much better. A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted during the 2011 holiday season, shares some of Great Pumpkin’s more regrettable traits—annoying in-app purchases and a Christmas Display prize you only find out is winnable at the end of the book.

But ignore the negatives. This iOS and Android app offers a fine re-creation of A Charlie Brown Christmas, with narration and dialogue from the original cast, some animated aspects, the ability to turn narration on or off, and of course the wonderful, cozy old story, accompanied by Charles M. Schultz’s super color images, of how Charlie Brown’s Christmas, against all odds, turned out great.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store and Google Play

The Verdict: A keeper, but the in-app purchase extras aren’t worth the extra money.

Christmas Tale HD

Christmas Tale HD includes a Read to Me option that enables parents to record their own voices doing the reading.

Christmas Tale HD is a very sweet short story squarely aimed at the pre-K or beginning reader set. Its graphics and in-app activities, which include memory match games and four-piece jigsaw puzzles, are what make it worth $2; without the activities, the book would be over in a few minutes.

One very nice touch is that while a child can listen to the book being read by a professional narrator, there’s also a record function that enables parents to record their own narration; that recording gets stored and swapped in for the built-in narrator. I know if I were a kid, I’d rather listen to my mom or dad, even in absentia.

The only in-app activity that misses the mark is “painting,” which is really coloring. The line drawings are smaller than they need to be for my iPad’s screen size, and they’re too small to color and keep within the lines. This is because the three crayon/color pencil size options are fat, fatter, and fattest. As an adult, I found this frustrating, so be prepared to forewarn your child that the lines are just for rough guidance, or something. Otherwise, the app’s a fine choice. Just be sure to opt for the $2 in-app purchase, which includes the full story and all of the activities.

Where to Get It: Free iOS App Store and Google Play

The Verdict: One good option among many holiday-themed apps aimed at the youngest age group.

Holiday Time Machine

While hosted by YouTube, this 1967 release of ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ by the Beatles is the kind of surprising rarity you’ll often find in Holiday Time Machine.

Holiday Time Machine is like a handheld audio-video museum that enables you to either revisit, rediscover, or simply be surprised by what you—or those who came before you—saw on their screens or heard on their radios and record players at holiday times in years gone by. The selection of videos, all of which seem to be hosted on YouTube, goes back to 1898. Some years have only a few videos, but years since the 1960s usually have sets of 30 or more multimedia selections. The 1967 Beatles Christmas selection pictured here, which was part of a flexi-disk mailed out to all of their fan club members, is followed in the 1967 set by a scene of The Monkees going Christmas tree shopping, which is then followed by a clip of the Osmonds ice skating.

This is a good mix of items—some holiday themed songs, some movie trailers, some full episodes of TV shows, some commercials, and some music videos. Best of all, there seems to be something for all tastes and ages. Scenes from silly sitcoms are followed by rock videos which are followed by sports highlights and then scenes from soaps. It’s a great grab bag, and as irresistible as a big bag of popcorn. And unlike lots of other apps that rely heavily on Web sources like YouTube, the content is all there—none of it’s been pulled for copyright or other reasons.

Where to Get It: $1; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

A Christmas Carol adaptations for the iPad

Spend as much time in Apple’s App Store as I do, and you find at least a dozen iPad or ebook versions of Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol. With free audio and text versions of the holiday story, you can always take your chances with that route. But for a few dollars, you may be able to get something more to your liking.

The quality (and necessity) of Secret Attic’s children’s adaption of A Christmas Carol is debatable, but the addition of historical tidbits (the histories of Christmas cards and trees, for example) is a good idea that’s well-implemented.

I decided to have a look at a couple of versions that seem noteworthy. Secret Attic’s A Christmas Carol is an ebook adapted for children. I found its graphics to be charming, the narration (which you can turn off) to be excellent, and the simple animations to be a delight. Along with each one-page short chapter, there’s a pulldown menu that provides access to a brief excerpt of the original, along with a paragraph’s worth of historical information. So along the way, you can learn about the history of Christmas trees and Christmas cards, for example. The images and animations seem like they would appeal to children, and I found the historical background to be especially appealing. The best part may be telling your kids that it’s historical fact: Christmas wasn’t always about presents.

Where to Get It: $2; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

The Naxos AudioBooks version of A Christmas Carol includes a professionally narrated complete version of the Charles Dickens original along with text.

Naxos AudioBooks’ Christmas Carol offering is also superb. Naxos specializes in audiobooks, and it shows. There’s nothing fancy about this version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s solidly produced. Each chapter is a separate entity, accessible via a table of contents, and you can read the text silently while listening to the app. The app also enables you to listen to it in the background, return to where you left off automatically if you take a break in your listening, and set a sleep timer, as well.

Where to Get It: $6; iTunes Store

The Verdict: A good choice if you prefer audio and the full version.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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