Digital Reading Room: Dollars and sense

[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.]

Holiday shopping may be eating into your discretionary app-buying budget. But not to worry: Three of the four apps featured in our regular look at content-rich offerings for your tablet won't cost you a dime to download. And the fourth packs in a staggering amount of information for just $7. Let's start there.

War Horse Interactive Edition

The home screen of War Horse Interactive Edition provides several simple ways into the story, masking the great depth that accompanies the basic tale.

War Horse has been a lot of things. It began, way back in 1982, as a highly-acclaimed children’s book published in Great Britain. Twenty-five years later, War Horse, the play, opened in London’s National Theatre, and won a prestigious Olivier Award before eventually making its way to Broadway in 2010, at just about the time Steve Spielberg began working on the film version, which came out last year and earned six Oscar nominations. It’s also been a radio drama. And now it’s an app.

The app has clearly been produced with the skill and care of War Horse in the other media. The basic story is about how a boy’s beloved horse is sold to the cavalry during World War I, and the boy’s quest to find him at war’s end.

But at the same time, it deals with complex and disturbing subject matter, and the app does a fine job of illuminating the details behind the simple tale. War Horse Interactive Edition includes an eBook, a professionally-narrated audio version that follows along with the text; an illustrated, in-depth historical timeline; an impassioned on-stage performance of the tale by its author, Michael Morpurgo; and a variety of experts in horses and trench warfare explaining various aspects of the story. Their mini-lectures are accompanied by fine photos and illustrations.

Other eBook app producers, take note. This is one way to do it right.

Where to Get It: $7; iOS App Store

The Verdict: A great story, and a bargain. What’s not to like?

Two apps from The Economist

The Economist is, without a doubt, a Serious Magazine. Its weekly issues are dense with text and weighted much more toward important global issues than other newsweeklies, such as Time and Newsweek, which long ago became as much about lifestyles and movie stars as about what’s happening in Washington.

The World in 2013 from The Economist combines serious forecasts about politics, social issues, and the economy with often whimsical graphics and more lighthearted prognostications.

But it’s a good thing that the pithily-named app, The World in 2013 from The Economist: Editor’s Highlights, has let a little of its freak flag fly. An abridged version of the print version of The World in 2013 issue, the app lightens a mix of well-informed political, economic, and business forecasts with brief, lively “man-in-the-street” videos from around the world, lively graphics that make some otherwise dry statistics palatable, and some forecasts about topics that are fun to think about, but far from crucial.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Worth downloading. You’ll probably learn something, and have some fun at the same time.

There’s a lot to like about The World in Figures, another app produced by The Economist. It provides a lot of the kinds of information that you’ll typically find in a dense almanac, ranging from “Countries—natural facts” to “Economic Growth” to “The Internet and Music.”

Who woulda thunk it? The World In Figures is full of surprising, well-graphed facts, like this one: The Irish go to the movies more than twice as often as Singaporeans, who still are among the world’s most ardent flick fans.

What makes the app a superb alternative to similar reference works is that it provides many different options for viewing what could be otherwise dry numbers. The app enables you to envision detailed data covering 51 topics (and scores more sub-topics) in ranked lists, alphabetized lists, bar charts, and maps. You can also choose countries to compare in each topic, and get detailed statistical overviews of each country.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

My London Story

The professionalism with which My London Story has been produced is exemplified by the thought that’s gone into its interface, which makes it easy to access most of the app’s functions—including the Edition Index—from within each story.

When I first opened My London Story, I wasn’t sure what to expect, though my expectations were fairly low because of the app's non-existent price tag. Comprised of medium-length stories that are required to be both true and as precisely located as possible within London, the app aims to build a deep, dense, and nuanced view of the city through the eyes of the people who live there.

The launch edition of the app, which is scheduled to be published six times a year, is first-rate. It includes 10 stories on a variety of topics: One is about a scammer who tries to lure in gullible, wannabe models, another is about cold-water swimming, a third covers a bike-riding ritual. But the subject matter almost doesn’t matter, because the writing is terrific. This was less surprising when I read the short bios of the contributors, who are all pros—published novelists, playwrights, and journalists from publications such as The New York Times and Wired.

The editors are seeking stories from anyone who has one to tell, and judging from the first edition of My London Story, the competition is going to be fierce.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

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

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