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Digital Reading Room: The great outdoors

Two of the apps we profile can take you outdoors in their own way, while a third can help boost your word power for all those term papers

[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.]

Spring has just about sprung, and two of this week's tablet apps take you outdoors in their own ways. If you're the active sort--a rock climber, fisher, builder of rope swings--then you may find Animated Knots by Grog HD to be a handy companion. If you're more interested in dreaming of more exotic, or distant, aspects of nature, you may find the BBC Earth Wonders app may be appealing. For many, spring also means term papers are coming up pretty soon, in which case you may want to consider beefing up your vocabulary with Thesaurus Rex.

Animated Knots by Grog HD

The Household category in Animated Knots by Grog HD includes a knot used to put together a tree swing. The animations can be viewed full screen, and the Information tab at the bottom of each animation leads to useful, detailed information on usage (and potential misuse).

Way back in the early days of the Web, I was doing a fair amount of backpacking and rock climbing, and I also took a course to become a Wilderness First Responder. All of the activities required learning to tie many different kinds of knots, and being slow or sloppy could be very costly--if your knots were attached to a stretcher being pulled up a sheer cliff wall, speed was crucial and failure wasn't an option.

I managed to learn the most important knots well enough, but I never became truly adept. Too bad Animated Knots by Grog wasn't around back then. I could have used it.

As the name suggests, the app provides animated, step-by-step instructions on how to tie more than 200 knots. The knots are sorted into 10 categories by use (boating, climbing, fishing, household, etc.) and by type (bends, hitches, stoppers, etc.). There's also a section on rope care.

There's plenty of text-heavy information about each knot--history, uses, and benefits and drawbacks. The heart of the app is, of course the animations, which are in slideshow format. The slides run automatically (and quickly) by default, but you can also choose to control playback at your own pace. Other options enable you to flip the slide images so you can see how a knot is tied left-to-right (very helpful if you're a lefty) and to view the animations in full-screen mode.

All of the information in Animated Knots by Grog, including the animations, is available for free on the web. The site, to its credit, notes this, but adds, correctly, that tablet app (as well as other versions for Mac, Windows, the iPhone and Android smartphones) requires no Internet connection and has no ads These are excellent selling points for an app that would be very handy to have in remote locations.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download if you use knots outdoors.

BBC Earth Wonders

While the BBC Earth Wonders app enables you to 'Browse and Discover' its stunning videos and images in a variety of ways, users must download the content by theme, necessitating 10 separate downloads of large files.

BBC Earth Wonders is a sometimes glorious and often maddening app-vertisement for the BBC's Planet Earth series, available for download from the iTunes Store (as you're reminded after viewing each brief video clip). What makes the app glorious is that it includes 50 stunning 30-second HD video clips of beautiful natural phenomena, as well as many terrific still images.

You can explore the app's content by theme (among the 10 themes are "Beautiful Wonders," "Bizarre Wonders," "Extreme Wonders," and "Ocean Wonders"), by place, and by environment (air, land, water). Your selections lead you to examples--desert seabirds, aurora, Himalayan weather, and so forth--which are well-illustrated but only partly explained with a short paragraph. The videos, while beautiful and strange, are almost impossible to understand without reading the text first, and even then, they're puzzling.

Of course, this is the point of the app. Want to really know what's going on? Purchase the series. This would be OK if using the app wasn't too much trouble. But it is--each "theme pack," ranging in size from 17MB to 104MB, has to be downloaded individually; unless you know to download them all before starting to use the app, you'll be frequently interrupted with a note to download one theme pack or another. This scheme would work fine if the app was navigable only by theme, but it's not, so exploring by geographical area or by environment requires downloading multiple theme packs.

Despite these drawbacks, BBC Earth Wonders contains some excellent, all-natural eye candy. It may pique your interest in some fantastic phenomena, but don't expect to be educated.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Not worth the hassle.

Thesaurus Rex

After you enter a word into its search box, Thesaurus Rex returns a list of synonyms ordered by relevance; it also provides antonyms and, with a $2 in-app purchase, rhymes. The right-hand part of the screen enables you to narrow down the synonym list by word length, complexity, or number of syllables.

Considering there's no shortage of very good free online and standalone thesauruses, Thesaurus Rex, a sparkling new iOS app produced by Dictionary.com, is a curiosity. Should you pay $3 (and another $2 each for the rhyming and examples add-ons) for a tool that replicates services that you can find elsewhere, gratis?

The answer is yes--if you have use for a writing assistant that is rich, multifaceted, fast, elegant, and customizable. When you enter a word into Thesaurus Rex, the app may return a simple question. For example, enter "rich" and the question is "Which 'rich' did you mean?" And then you choose from among a half-dozen possibilities, including "having a lot of money," "flavorful," and "very funny." Your selection then leads to a list of alternative words and short phrases, ranked in order of relevance. Sidebar tools enable you to return only synonyms of a certain length or number of syllables. A pronunciation tool allows you to hear most words aloud. Usage examples are simple and helpful, and the rhyming option provides copious (or at least ample) possibilities for poets and lyricists. Also, by tapping a star next to a word, you can add it to your "favorites" list.

While most of information provided by Thesaurus Rex can be found on the thesaurus.com website, the app's ease of use, speed, and refined interface help turn what is often a chore into an interesting, informative, and fun experience.

Where to Get It: $3; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download for wordsmiths.


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