The Elements for iPad: Hands-on review


My initial hands-on review of the iPad for Boing Boing mentioned The Elements, one of a handful of apps built specifically for iPad available for review prior to Saturday's public launch. After spending some quality time with the app, I can say The Elements is my favorite at this very early stage. We've covered previous iterations of Theodore Gray's gorgeous periodic table series before -- books, posters, puzzles, but it's as if all of that was a sketch, and this app the real intended execution of his project. The Elements transforms a familiar scientific reference into a dazzling, living book that delights the eye and tickles the neurons. It really does hint at the possibilities promised by Apple for iPad: a device that makes it possible to merge book, game, entertainment, reference app, internet search, and who knows what else in a new and pleasingly hands-on way.

After the jump, many more screengrabs, and a video of the device playing Tom Lehrer's Elements Song, an awesome little geek easter egg accessible from within the Elements for iPad.

Video links (Boing Boing Video / YouTube):

The Elements for iPad: The Elements Song
iPad: The Elements, a first look from Boing Boing

The app will sell for $13.99, and was developed for Touchpress by John Cromie of Skylark Associates in Ireland, with some coding also by Gray. Nick Mann, who took most of the rotation photographs, using Canon cameras and lenses (Gray says they shot so many stills in the course of developing the project's image base, more than a quarter million, they wore out several sets of shutters).

The basic idea is this: view the entire periodic table on launch. Select an element, see some data, and a "movie" of a representation of that element. Advance to a second page, and see touch-spinnable icons of more real-world representations of that element. Select one of those, and you get a detail view which can also be presented in 3D, viewable with glasses sold separately (at $4.95). Each element's detail view allows you to connect to Wolfram Alpha for live data: for instance, look up the current price of gold, or scan the thermodynamic properties of antimony. The connection speed on that feature feels a little pokey in this early edition.

The app was developed in great haste, without much lead time provided by Apple. Given the speed involved in development, the end result really is impressive: stable, fast, and a joy to meander around in. Gray imagines other forms of interaction with elements for future editions, but there's plenty to work with even in version 1.0.1.











  1. If I am not mistaken, the programmer has paid to back end the application to Wolfram Alpha. Likely part of the nearly $15 cost of the app goes to pay to use the Wolframα API.

    It looks beautiful, and seeing as I once paid $10 bucks for a laminated tri-fold periodic chart, along with some chem notes, I can see that this product may have found a good audience.

    Heck, if I had a kid and an iPad, I’d buy the app to help foster an interest in chemistry.

  2. No 3D glasses are needed to view the 3D models. Simply use the “cross-eyed technique”. I tried it with the screenshots above and it works pretty well. (I found it less straining if I zoomed off a little first) Bronze Dragon looks especially nice. Enjoy.

  3. Am I the only person who has problems with large amounts of white text on a black background?

  4. Nice maille for the copper sample. Saw cut rings, good joins. Happy to see HP4-1 in such a prominent place. It’s one of my favorite weaves.

    1. Why thank you. I’m indeed a rather big fan of the persian weaves; half persian 3-in-1 sheet-6 being my bread and butter so to speak (Which is made out of niobium in my collection, by the way).

      I was at university when I made that sample. The rings were cut with a jewelers saw on a duct tape and cardboard jig that held the mandrel and coil. I would probably have done somewhat better with a real vice, of course.

  5. When it connects to Wolfram Alpha/Internet it takes way too long.
    In fact in every video ive seen of the iPad connecting to the internet its evident that the internet/browser is pretty slow. My $250 dollar netbook would smoke that thing.

    1. That gap was Wolfram|Alpha remotely calculating the required content, not the browser loading it. It had nothing at all to do with the device. On the web app, it computes each bit in place, but here it seems to show the computation modally and then show the result practically instantly at the end. If you search for platinum on Wolfram on your desktop the latter parts take about the same time to show up as is shown in the video.

  6. #3, Theodore Gray was a cofounder of Wolfram Research, so it is quite likely that he doesn’t get charged the full fee for using the Wolfram Alpha API.

  7. It looks neat, but $13 is too much money for something like this. It looks like one of those books published by DK.

    Remember when CD-ROM drives hit the big time and everybody started publishing multimedia books. That’s what this reminds me of.

    Microsoft should bring Encarta back from the dead and make it an iPad app.

  8. If I get hold of one, I’m ordering the cover that says ‘Don’t Panic!’ in nice calm friendly letters. and the H2g2 app.

    How miraculously nifty appearing (I’d want 4x the processing speed) is this gadget?

    My friend the Applephobe, actually asked what the price range is. And if they made a larger model. Then complained it didn’t use a fold-up flexible screen.

  9. Those are some very nice pictures, indeed. But speaking as a non-iPhone (and non-iPad) guy, I’m still unclear on why this has to be released as an “app” and not a simple webpage, maybe one optimized for use with an iPad. At least with an IPhone app, I can understand that the interface has to be designed for use on a tiny screen. Why not make this a webpage, if not for the fact that they’re more likely to get people to pay for an app for a new gadget instead of just a pretty webpage?

    1. adamnvillani – Basically for the multitouch parts of the app. As far as I know, you can’t do stuff like this on a web page.

      That brings up an interesting question. Other than the sparkly bits, how is this better than Safari + Wikipedia?

    2. adamnvillani,

      My immediate thought is so you don’t need an internet connection to enjoy the content. WYSIWYG, and all that. Also, as Xeni mentioned in the original review, the lack of lag/buffer/stutter makes the experience all the better.

      Personally, as an iPod touch owner, discovering that you could get dictionary apps that didn’t have to connect to the internet was a huge bonus. I had just been using Wikipedia app/ Safari etc, but having the content residing inside the app has made these all-the-more valuable tools for me.

      1. Check out the comments in Cory’s review. There is an HTML5 developer there who clarifies that an HTML5 site (app?) can be written to be work without a connection. You still have to do the initial load, but the same can be said for this.

        1. Chesterfield,

          Although that may be true, what is the substantive difference?

          Either you have to download it as a package before hand, or you have to load each piece separately on-demand. That is the distinction I was making, not whether to write it in Objective-C or HTML5.

          And for a fact, HTML5 + javascript cannot be as fast as compiled, native code.

          1. True. But all that really matters is if it is fast enough. Don’t discount HTML and javascript. Check out GWT’s Quake 2 implementation. HTML and javascript running Quake at 60 fps.

            Javascript is the new machine language.

  10. I made several award winning consumer CD-ROMs back in the day, but it seems to me that that whole market was largely little more than people who’d just spend $1500 on a multimedia computer being willing to spend another $40 or $60 to justify the purchase.

    I really don’t see digital coffee table books making a comeback, no matter how pretty Apple’s screen is, nor how intuitive their UI other than as a justification by early adopters for buying the device.

    But if anybody thinks this is the next big thing, drop me a line, I’ve got the chops and would love to be creating edutainment titles selling for $13 a pop again.

  11. So $13.99 + $499 gets you this in a slower to navigate form, with slightly prettier pictures. Got it. Now I understand the iPad’s target market.

  12. Interestingly, the WolframAlpha site now has a description of both a dedicated iPad app, and WolframAlpha for ebooks (“Launching in Q2”). It’s tagline is “Make factual content come alive by integrating computational knowledge into electronic publications”. So we may soon see other similar apps based upon WolframAlpha.

  13. What I would love is a zoom tool that lets you hone in on an element and snap to the theoretical and “physical” atomic structure (that’s context aware so you’re not zooming between electrons and protons).

    That would be awesome.

  14. What’s with all the grumpin’? It looks (like in a couple of weeks) The Elements reinvented how you use a book (book tech hasn’t changed since 1440.) I just saw something truly new and it’s just the start. Remember what it was like to use a cell phone interface before the iPhone came and showed everyone how it was supposed to be done?

    I was hoping the comments were going to filled with exciting possibilities “Guns Germs and Steel” with animated maps, the real “Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe”, David Foster Wallace footnotes popping up from the text, textbooks that explain the symbolism in James Joyce for High School kids. I don’t know… The future of books might have just arrived and it sounds like fun.

    1. “Remember what it was like to use a cell phone interface before the iPhone came and showed everyone how it was supposed to be done?”

      You mean, perfectly acceptable, easier to text, and with less finger grease on screens? Yep, I remember that. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that some of us haven’t tasted the “the iPhone revolutionized cell phones” kool-aid.

  15. Textbooks as we know them are dead. Once children get their hands on apps like these, they will never want to use anything else.

  16. “Perfectly acceptable” and less finger grease, what an exciting vision of the future you have.

    1. Syd, if you are looking for a better book, you will eventually be disappointed with the iPad. The book (digital or analog) has been pretty much perfected. Adding gimmick’s like pictures you can spin around is pretty lame and has been done before (remember multimedia CD-ROMs?).

      Something entirely new needs to come out of this, not just books++.

      As for phones, you should check out what’s been available in Japan for the past 10 years. Pretty amazing stuff.

      I do give Apple high marks for their industrial design though. Beautiful devices. I think the iPhone is the only phone I have ever seen that doesn’t have the carrier’s name on the case somewhere.

      1. Imagine a fictional iPad Field Guide. The iPad version knows your location on the planet as well as the time and date and points out the birds in your area you are likely to see. There is an animation of the bird flying and a sample of it’s song. The iPad (version 2) lets you take a picture of the bird, tags the location and lets you upload the data to the Audubon society. Because other people have walked the same trail before you know there is a nesting pair of whatevers up ahead. How does this compare to a printed guide?

        How about a “whats that bug? book” What color is it? Does it have wings? Where did you find it? Does it look like this? (yes or no). You found a… here are some facts about it. Hold the book up to the sky and it overlays all the satellites passing overhead, it helps you find Mars in the night sky.

        It’s a reference book(connected to the internet), chockfull of sensors. The “book” knows where you are, when you are there, which direction you are pointing and how fast you are moving, it’s updated in real time and you can “touch” it. This is nothing like a CD-rom stuck in a computer on a desk. I guess it’s not really a book any more, it’s something new and I am excited about it.

        As for phones…Here are the top ten phones sold worldwide in the month the iPhone came out. You can’t deny the iPhone pushed things forward. Just look at them.

        1. Great examples of innovative uses of the iPad that go beyond a multimedia book. I’m being sincere. This periodic table book is lame in comparison to what you’ve described. The Elements book is still mostly book whereas you’ve described something that isn’t very bookish anymore.

          You know, if you look at the list of the top selling phones globally last year, I bet the list doesn’t look much different. The Nokia 1100 over its life has sold 200 million units. Even the Moto Razr has sold something like 100 million units. Has the iPhone hit the 10 million mark yet?

        2. Plus mic input for song identification- a birdsong/bug-song/frog-song Shazzam-like program built into an iPad field guide with a connection to a wiki of geotagged instances of that particular bird, bug or frog.

          Yes, I have fantasized about this OFTEN.

  17. Wow. I thought I had been kicked because after I posted a comment, the comment disappeared and then I couldn’t log in (when attempting to log in I was told my account didn’t exist).
    I’m (obviously) not kicked as I’m posting, but I must say though, if my comment got under any ones skin, then you’ve got some thin skin as it was fairly innocuous. More a mild criticism. And funny to boot. And I’ll provide the unicorn chaser:

  18. All I can say is, I can’t wait to get an iPad after seeing this video. This is barely scratching the surface of what could be done. I’d love to see something akin to this for military aircraft, complete with rotating models. For my wife, who’s into gems, how about the Smithsonian collection? Antique cars, coins, birds, fish … all with live Wolfram-Alpha (or whatever) updated data. Nice.

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