The best Apple iPhone apps for reference and research – group test review

Star Walk, Internet Movie Database, Dictionary, Articles, Holy Bible, Encarda reviewed and rated
Photo of The best Apple iPhone apps for reference and research – group test

The reference category of the Apple iTunes App Store is vast, taking in everything from birds in the trees – and the trees themselves – to TV programmes, knots, airport guides and, inevitably, Angry Birds walkthroughs. (Here’s our AB walkthrough by the way – see those birds? Fling them at those pigs). So this month has gone for broad, rather than deep and tried to pick the best reference apps that’ll appeal to a wide range of iPhone users.

Please feel free to email us your views on the apps we’ve tested, and let us know about any you’d like us to look at in future.

PRICE: £1.99 inc. VAT
Having loved and been pretty much baffled by the night sky in equal measure, we were delighted to discover Star Walk (£1.99): a planetarium in the palm of your hand.Where other astronomy apps leave us swinging in the solar winds and scratching our heads, Star Walk presents the night sky in a way that’s dynamic and easy to understand.

At its most basic, you can just start the app, set your location and then hold it up to the sky as if you were about the take a photo, and Star Walk will display whatever you’re looking at – whether it’s the sun and the moon, the Hubble telescope – it’s true what they say, the sky is full of satellites – the red supergiant Antares or Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo.

Set night sky views as bookmarks, search the solar system, constellations or deep space for specific objects, tap on something in the sky to highlight it, then tap ‘i’ for more information; you can view the phases of the moon days, weeks and months ahead, and overlay the stars above onto the camera view from the iPhone. It’s an absolute joy. 

IMDb iPhone app

Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
Although Flixster has a certain brash, squeeze-you-by-the-arm charm, the Internet Movie Database (FREE) is still the cinematic weapon of choice for resolving those pub arguments over whether Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves was called Harry Caul or not (the answer’s no by the way, it was Harry Moseby – Caul was his character in Coppola’s The Conversation).

The revamped IMDb app’s interface showcases new trailers on the front page, contains local cinema listings, entertainment news (though this is extremely US-centric), each with their own selection of special features and trailers – and then, behind it all, lurks that vast, searchable database of movies, TV shows, actors, directors and more, stretching back to the early days of cinema.

IMDb requires you to be connected to the Internet for all of its content, but the video clips work well enough using 3G. For casual cinema goers and film buffs alike, this is the gold standard. Right, now for some classic De Niro quotes from Midnight Run

Dictionary iPhone app

While we’re obviously tempted to collogue (word of the day, meaning ‘confer secretly’) about this, the idea of a review is to share information and opinion with others, so let’s start by saying that Dictionary (£FREE) should be on every iPhone.

You can use Dictionary’s search feature to find troublesome words, have them read back to you with the correct pronunciation, share definitions via email, Facebook or Twitter, mark words you commonly misspell for later and shake the phone to get a word at random.

It’s not all lookups either – there’s a word of the day, a Spanish word of the day, question of the day (‘What’s the difference between a road and a street?’) and a ‘hot word’ topic (is it ever OK to say ‘didja?’); you can even speak a word into the mic and Dictionary will spell it for you. After that, switch to the Thesaurus and do it all over again. Great for crosswords, too.

Articles iPhone app

PRICE: £0.69 inc. VAT
Why pay for Articles (£0.69) when there are other free Wikipedia front ends a-plenty for the iPhone? Because it offers the perfect blend of form and function, facilitating access to the 19 million articles stored on the Internet’s favourite encyclopaedia in a way that never gets in the way of the content itself.

In fact, Articles is so understated, you can still find yourself discovering clever little interface tricks long after you first install it – like pulling down the screen to lock the orientation, tapping the tiny chapters button to navigate quickly through long articles, or using the ‘Nearby’ feature to find articles based on your geographical location – great for a bit of phoney inside knowledge when you’re visiting somewhere new.

You can mark items to be read later, share links to specific articles via email, create folders and then fill them with your own bookmarks, open different Wikipedia entries in new full-screen views and flip between them and more. All this is delivered via an interface that is crisp, elegant and a delight to use.

Holy Bible iPhone app

Holy Bible
…Or, rather, dozens of different versions of the Holy Bible (£FREE) in many different languages, each with the complete text, searchable or browsable by book, chapter and verse.

You can change the typeface, switch between day and a high-contrast night view, make notes on the text and share these with others, have passages read back to you, bookmark verses for later or follow one of the included plans designed to help you read the whole thing in a structured way.

Some of the more advanced study and sharing features require a free YouVersion online account, but if you just want to read and reflect, there’s nothing else you need. And if you want to be alone with the text without any distractions, a quick double-tap will remove all the menus.

Encarda iPhone app

PRICE: £1.99 inc. VAT
Presumably a pun on Encarta, Microsoft’s former best-selling encyclopaedia, Encarda (£1.99) is actually a reference guide to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

It contains 4,000 searchable individual entries together with extras like timelines, family trees and maps. Written in the kind of cod-historical style that Middle Earth fans love (think J.E.A. Tyler’s Tolkien Companion), it’s a great source of help with the author’s notoriously tricky pronunciation – Sauron is ‘sow-ron’ for example, apparently from the Greek ‘sauros’ meaning lizard – and although inevitably a work in progress (some of the family trees are surprisingly thin).

Encarda will be a real help for anyone who wants to bone up before Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit film hits the cinemas next year. The interface is a bit rum in parts, and our little Hobbitish fingers found the timeline tiresome to navigate, but a bit of pipetted soon sorted that out; and for fans (or anyone) with a generous spirit this is rewarding and fun.

All apps are available from Apple via the iTunes Store.