Digital Reading Room: Counting it down

[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.]

Since the debut of the Digital Reading Room column in early August, the quantity and quality of content rich apps seems to have exploded. And that means consumers can be much pickier when considering how to spend their hard-earned dollars (and precious time). As a result, we end 2012 with higher expectations for both the design and depth of these apps. Two of the offerings reviewed below fall short in the “depth” column, disappointing considering their provenance (and price tags). But all is not lost, as evidenced by a free offering by the National Archives and Records Administration as well as some free (or inexpensive) releases by an innovative, Barcelona-based developer.

The John Lennon Letters

The iTunes store description of The John Lennon Letters app says, in part, that it “offers a different but complementary experience to the hardback book.” A more accurate description might be that it wraps substantially less than the 2012 book edited by Hunter Davies in a digital figleaf.

This letter to New York Times writer Craig McGregor is one (of not many) substantial pieces of correspondence included in The John Lennon Letters app.

The Beatles used to care about fans getting ripped off—for example, the band despised Capitol Records’ practice of repackaging every two British LPs into three U.S. releases, simply to make more money. The Beatles also capped concert ticket prices far below what they fetched from scalpers, out of a sense of fairness. Those ideals aren’t evident in this app.

The app is not complementary to the book, except that it includes professional narration of the letters, notes, and postcards. Explanatory hyperlinks don’t provide information not in the book. And links to Beatles or Lennon solo tracks on the iTunes store that accompany each missive are a sales pitch, not a bonus. The 10 letters “exclusive” to the app are scraps—throwaways that won’t be missed if you buy the book, while adding nothing to the app’s value. And the other letters are obviously not “complementary,” as they are in the book.

The narration is done well, but often seems just silly, especially the sincere readings of tossed-off two-sentence Christmas cards, three-sentence book inscriptions, and other effluvia. For example, on the back of a snapshot, Lennon wrote to a fan, “To Liz, thanks for a great year, love, John Lennon.” This, like the other material, is narrated.

While most of the “letters” are postcards or brief and hastily tossed-off notes, some of the material included is significant, including lengthy letters to Stu Sutcliffe, Paul and Linda McCartney, fans, and critics. One nice aspect of the app is that no matter how trivial, each item is transcribed and includes commentary; often, the commentary is much more enlightening and interesting than the item commented upon.

Where to Get It: $9; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Spend your money on the printed book instead.

Ranger Rick Jr. Appventures: Lions

It’s easy to appreciate Ranger Rick Jr. Appventures: Lions, an app aimed at the 4-7 year-old set, in isolation. Produced by Ranger Rick Jr. magazine, it’s easy to navigate and offers a fair amount of information about lions via talking cartoon characters Ricky the Raccoon and Lars the Lion as well as through short videos, simple games and puzzles, and other activities of the sort typically found in children’s magazines.

Ranger Rick Jr. Appventures: Lions intersperses short, easily-understandable factual information with games that can be accessed within the context of a step-by-step tour of the lions’ world (as seen here, by tapping the What’s Wrong with this Picture?).

But considering the slew of other educational options available across all media aimed at this age group, the app is overpriced. For example, the iPad version of Click Magazine aimed at the same age group has similar activities, educational stories and graphics based on a different theme (pets, trains, etc.) each month—it’s only $3 for single issues or $18 for a 9-issue subscription. In addition, free and on-demand TV shows and videos can also offer a lot of bang for a lot less buck.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Not bad, but consider the alternatives.

To The Brink: JFK And The Cuban Missile Crisis

To The Brink, produced by the National Archives and Records Administration from materials exhibited at the JFK Library and Museum, is an excellent multimedia history lesson that manages to be as dramatic and gripping as it is informative.

It has a simple design—each of the crisis’ 13 days has an overview page, which includes a well-chosen quote and a brief summary of the situation on that day. Most days include links to photos of Kennedy and his advisors (including his brother, Robert, who was attorney general) and critical documents (including intelligence profiles of Soviet Premier Khrushchev and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro). The videos, which are typically slide shows of meetings that come alive thanks to clear audio recordings from those meetings, pack an extraordinary amount of drama—due to uncertainty and differing opinions—into three minutes or so.

To The Brink: JFK And The Cuban Missile Crisis can be easily absorbed in an hour or less, and it’s difficult to imagine a better learning experience packed into the length of a typical college lecture.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: A definite download.

News and Notes

Forgotten Colours from Play Creatividad

The folks at Play Creatividad, the creators of iPoe, have been busy creating more innovative e-book apps. The recently released iPoe 2—The Interactive and Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe Collection ($3) continues in the tradition of the first volume, illustrating Poe’s stories with surreal, spooky, and often animated illustrations, while combining the text and images with appropriately spine-chilling music. The new volume includes Poe’s “Hop Frog” and “The Black Cat.” “The Raven” is billed as “coming soon.”

Barcelona-based Play Creatividad also recently released the charming e-book Forgotten Colours, ($4) which is available in the iOS App Store. Its follow-up, Inspiration Dormant: Forgotten Colours Revisited, a $10 graphic novel, is available as an iBook through iTunes.

If you like the lush illustrations that accompany the books, then you may enjoy the free sets of wallpapers Play Creatividad has made available for Forgotten Colours and Inspiration Dormant as well.

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

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