Best Academic Reference Apps for the iPad

by Reads (44,638)

The Apple iPad can be a great personal organizer for students, whether you’re using the built-in calendar and contacts apps or you’re using something a little more advanced, like iStudiez Pro or Pocket Informant HD. But that’s only half of the story, because the iPad can also be an excellent source of reference information as well. The following apps are just a brief introduction to the wealth of reference material, both general and course-specific, that is available for the iPad. It won’t replace your textbook, but you may be surprised to find out just how helpful it can be in forwarding your education.


Every student knows that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for academic research, but it is still the first stop for many students. Wikipedia certainly has its place, especially for a quick exploration of a particular topic and a jumping off point for finding more academically rigorous resources.

Encyclopedia for iPad ($9.99)

Encyclopedia for iPadThe Encyclopedia for iPad app is aptly named, so long as you understand that the encyclopedia in question is actually the entire English version of the Wikipedia website. The first time you run the app after installation you will be prompted to download the compressed version of the Wikipedia to your device. This process can take a very long time, but it can be restarted where you left off if you find it necessary to do so.

The user interface is rather minimal — not much more than a blank search box where you enter what you’re looking for. Suggested matches are filled in as you type, so it’s likely you won’t have to enter the whole word. When you see what you want, a simple tap brings up the article. Each entry is fully hyperlinked, so you can jump quickly back and forth through a chain of references. A small compass button in the top right corner of the screen takes you directly to the Wikipedia version of the article in the Safari web browser

The Encyclopedia for iPad doesn’t include any illustrations, of course, but the app does get the job done. If you need a complete short reference to just about everything, and you need offline access either because you don’t have a 3G iPad or aren’t willing to pay for wireless service when Wi-Fi isn’t available, Encyclopedia for iPad has you covered. Hopefully future versions of the app will offer an option to include at least some charts and illustrations. There’s no way that everything would fit, but those folks with a 64GB iPad would likely be willing to give up more than the 2GB of space Encyclopedia for iPad requires in order to have a richer, more graphically-intense experience.

Wikipanion Plus for iPad ($4.99)

Wikipanion Plus for iPadYou can access Wikipedia by using the iPad’s Safari web browser, but sometimes you need a bit more. Wikipanion Plus enhances the experience by adding some extra features to the mobile app that bring the experience very close to what you would expect when exploring the site on a desktop browser. Wikipanion Plus uses a direct connection to Wikipedia for speed, and the app has been designed to “understand” the articles so that you’ll see a side panel with an outline view, created from the headers for each article.

The other major feature is the queue, which allows you to save articles, including illustrations, for offline viewing. A simple tap is used for regular navigation from page to page, but a tap and hold on any link within an article automatically adds it to the queue. That’s great news for Wi-Fi-only iPad owners, and the main reason that Wikipanion Plus is worth the $4.99 cost. for the iPad (Free) app for iPadStudents need a dictionary handy when reading their assignments, and a thesaurus when writing papers. Those two references are some of the most important a student will ever have, but it can be a drag to shuffle back and forth through the pages. There are online dictionaries of course, but that doesn’t help much if you don’t have an internet connection.

The app solves that problem by providing a free dictionary and thesaurus for the iPad. Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, this app includes an exhaustive list of words. Start typing in the search box at the top of the page, and matches start appearing almost instantly. Tap a word to look it up, and you’ll see a definition, along with origin information. Entries are fully hyperlinked, and each header word has a real voice pronunciation that you can access with a single tap. The thesaurus is also a valuable resource, with fully hyperlinked synonyms and antonyms.

The only features of the app that require an internet connection are audio word pronunciations and the word of the day. Everything else is stored locally on your iPad, so you’ll never be at a loss for words. It’s free, so there’s no excuse not to grab it now.

World Atlas HD for iPad ($1.99)

World Atlas HD for iPadThe name of the World Atlas HD iPad app is something of a misnomer — it’s an atlas and a world fact book in one app. The maps are beautiful, in that famous National Geographic style. You can choose between executive, political, and satellite maps, and pinch/zoom works flawlessly. Tap and hold on a particular country for a popup box full of information, from fast facts and historical highlights to industries, exports, and agriculture.

There is a search box in the top right corner of the screen, and you can bookmark particular places if you like. Some features require an internet connection, or you can download full maps (with the exception of Bing street and satellite maps) to your device for offline browsing and an overall better experience. There isn’t a very deep level of detail here, but the information included is certainly worth $1.99.


The Elements: A Visual Exploration for iPad ($9.99)

The Elements for iPadWhen the iPad was first released, everyone was talking about this app, and for good reason. I’m not a science nerd by any means, but it’s hard not to be amazed by The Elements app. It starts with Tom Lehrer’s 1959 song about the elements, complete with a full periodic table built right before your eyes, as each element is mentioned in the song.

The table is fully searchable, and the entry for each element includes video that shows the element in as natural a state as possible, along with basic information such as the atomic radius, crystal structure, density, melting and boiling points, and much more. The second page for each element contains a lot more information, including examples of how it is used in consumer products.

It’s absolutely brilliant: informative and yet fun for all ages. If you need a periodic table for reference, or want to bring chemistry to life, The Elements is the way to do it. It’s rather expensive at $9.99, but it is truly engaging and just might be the first step into turning you into a science nerd after all.

Star Walk ($4.99) and Solar Walk ($2.99) for the iPad

Star Walk for iPadIf you’ve always been fascinated by the night sky, but you can’t find any of the major constellations, you need to get a copy of the Star Walk for iPad app. It uses the GPS functionality built into the iPad to pinpoint your location, and then shows you exactly what you should be seeing when you look up at the sky.

The display moves as you change position, and you can pinch to zoom or tap on any specific star or nighttime object to get more information. A special night vision mode dims the display and makes it easier to read while preserving your night vision. A search mode helps you find the celestial objects you’re searching for.

Each time you start the app you are presented with Sky Live, a summary of key astrological information such as sunrise and sunset, the phase of the moon, and more. Whether you’re a budding astronomer or simply want to be able to show your kids the major constellations, Star Walk has you covered for just $4.99.

Solar Walk for iPadIf you want to narrow the focus on our own solar system, Solar Walk would be an excellent choice at a lower cost. Like Star Walk, you can pinch and zoom the display, and rotate it as well. It shows the orbits of all the planets and major moons, and the Time Machine feature allows you to go backwards and forwards in time to specific dates. Tapping on a planet or moon brings up additional information, including general info, facts & figures, internal structure, and highlights of previous exploratory missions.

If you have a pair of 3-D glasses, you’ll enjoy the special effects that pop into life when you put on your glasses and tap the 3D button in the lower left corner of the map. You can use the app without them, but the 3D effects are lovely and not to be missed.

Science Glossary for iPad (Free)

Science Glossary for iPadThe Science Glossary app includes a comprehensive list of words important to scientific study, from atom to zygote, with brief definitions. Words that appear in definitions are cross-linked to their respective definitions so that you can jump quickly back and forth. When you’re reading an entry and come across an unfamiliar word in blue, a simple tap takes you to that word’s definition.

If a word also appears in VisionLearning’s free online education modules, the app lets you know with a small popup box at the bottom of the screen. Tapping on any of the module names opens up the Safari web browser on your iPad and takes you right to the specified module. The online resources are rather extensive and cover a variety of subjects, from biology and chemistry to scientific research and pharmacology. Science Glossary won’t replace a more comprehensive reference, but it is useful, links you to more extensive resources on the web, and you can’t beat the price.

Math Ref for iPad (Free limited version, or 99 cent premium version)

Math Ref for iPadNeed formulas? The Math Ref app has just about any formula you can possibly think of, and then some. Categories and sub-headings are listed on the left side of the screen, and it’s easy to scroll through them with a swipe of your finger. If you know what you’re looking for, you can use the search box at the top left corner of the screen.

All of the formulas appear on the right side of the screen, in small boxes; when you see the formula you want, a single tap expands the box to show the formula, along with additional information and examples for selected entries. It can be a little hard trying to see what you want to access, because the boxes, while nicely presented, are quite small and the text and graphs are smaller still. It’s still a good value at 99 cents, though it would be a good idea to start with the free version of the app first. It only contains 600 formulas as compared to more than 1300 in the full app, but it will give you a good idea of whether Math Ref will meet your needs before you make the purchase.

Free Equation Genius for iPad (Free)

Do equations befuddle you? Are you having trouble with algebra? The Free Equation Genius app can help you solve several kinds of equations, from first degree equations with one variable all the way up to a series of equations with as many as three unknowns. It would be quite useful for any student of algebra, and I wish I’d had it when I was in school! This app is rather limited in focus, but what it does, it does well.

Math Cheat Sheet for iPad ($2.99)

Math Cheat Sheet for iPadThe Math Cheat Sheet app is indeed a cheat sheet, and brings to mind the laminated quick reference cards that you can find in most college and academic bookstores. It includes ten pages of helpful quick reference hints and tips on arithmetic, algebra, powers and roots, and geometry. Conversion tables and formulas for weights and measures are also provided.

The app doesn’t “do” anything in the sense that it doesn’t solve equations or perform conversions for you. In that sense it is a useful tool for students because it ensures that they don’t rely on an app or a fancy calculator to do math for them, instead of learning it for themselves.

There’s a nice range of information here, though I was disappointed to find that there is no landscape viewing mode, and there is no support for pinch & zoom. Some of the text can be hard to read, and the language is somewhat obfuscatory — if you don’t know what that word means, you may have a hard time understanding some of the terms and definitions used in this app. There’s some good information here, but it’s geared toward middle and high school students, not beginners, as the “Basic Math” name might lead you to believe.

Art Authority for iPad ($8.99)

Art Authority for iPadThe Art Authority app is a virtual museum tour on your iPad. Divided into eight different rooms roughly by time period (Early, Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism, Modern, Contemporary, and American), you are invited to explore some of the world’s greatest works of art. Tapping to enter a room takes you to a wall in the museum where you can explore the works of that period in specific groups, or you can use the index to jump to a particular artist.

When you first enter a room, the paintings can be somewhat slow to load. That won’t affect your viewing of the first few paintings, but it may take a while before you can scroll through all of the paintings by a particular artist. You can view paintings one at a time, with a filmstrip down the side you can swipe up and down to see other choices, or you can use the settings menu accessed from the gears icon at the top of the screen to enter thumbnail view. You can select the size of the columns to control the size of the thumbnails; it’s a great way to quickly find a specific painting.

Each painting includes the title, year, materials, size, and location, but that’s about it. There isn’t much in the way of extra information included in the app, which is something of a disappointment. It would have been nice to include short biographies of the artists, short lectures on the various styles or on art appreciation, etc. Links to Wikipedia are included in the app, but they generally go to the main page for a movement or a particular artist, though some of the paintings are important enough to have their own entries in the online encyclopedia.

I’m impressed by the quality of the art that is included in the app — all of the paintings are high resolution, and you can pinch and zoom in on particular areas to see small details. A slideshow function is included, making Art Authority a lovely screen saver when the iPad is docked. There’s even a “Ken Burns” option to zoom in and pan across each work of art while the slideshow is playing.

Art Authority may seem relatively expensive at $8.99, but it’s definitely worth the price if you’re studying art. Instead of purchasing several heavy, expensive art books when you’re taking an art appreciation class, you can use Art Authority instead and have a full reference library of the world’s most beautiful and important images in your iPad. It may not have a great deal of in-depth information about the artists and their works of art, but Art Authority is a “work of art” on its own.

Van Gogh HD for iPad (99 cents)

Van Gogh for iPadVan Gogh HD is part of a series of apps that covers some of the most famous artists in history, from Da Vinci to Renoir. Each app is arranged into sections by time period; a single tap on the screen will take you to a slideshow of the included works. Unfortunately there are very few paintings included, at least in the Van Gogh version of the app — the most in any one category is 17, which doesn’t compare very well to the more than 600 Van Gogh paintings in the Art Authority app.

The quality is exceptional, in most cases even better than the quality of the photos in Art Authority, especially at high levels of zoom. There’s no additional information included at all beyond the title, date, and location of the included paintings. The only thing that sets it apart is the special section with reproductions of some of the artist’s letters to Theo, Vincent’s younger brother. The Van Gogh HD app is lovely, but I was expecting more, even with a low price of 99 cents.

Shakespeare Pro for iPad ($9.99)

Shakespeare Pro for iPadEvery student reads at least a few of Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare Pro can make that experience a little easier and more enjoyable. The app includes all of Shakespeare’s plays, plus his sonnets and poems. Each play is broken down by act and by scene, so that navigation is fast and easy. Tilt scrolling lets you control the speed of auto-scrolling text on the screen, and the settings let you control the font, size, and color of the text for optimum reading comfort.

Additional resources include a concordance and a glossary; when you’re reading a play a single tap on underline words brings up a definition of the word. The Facts area of the app includes a biography of William Shakespeare, as well as a chronology of the plays, the length of each play from longest (Hamlet) to shortest (Comedy of Errors), character roles, and the theaters in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. A gallery of 18 different portraits of Shakespeare painted throughout history is also included.

Shakespeare Pro is a complete package and a great resource for those studying his plays. While you won’t find any expert commentary on the plays, you will the complete works of Shakespeare with enough extra features to make this a good basic reference for students at a reasonable cost.

Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle ($4.99)

Civil War Americas Greatest Struggle for iPadHistory is one relatively under-served area in the App Store, though MultiEducator is aiming to change that with a large variety of apps that include a wealth of information about various periods in history. One of the first is Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle and it does contain a great deal of material, from maps and photos to summaries of key battles and biographies of famous generals on both sides of the conflict.

The sidebar on the left organizes the information into categories, and a search bar at the top helps you to find what you’re looking for fast. I found everything to be well organized, and the articles are interesting and informative. The rather text-heavy app is livened up by timelines, photos, multimedia presentations, and even recordings of music made popular during the Civil War.

I appreciate how everything is laid out, with icons in the sidebar that let me know before I tap whether a particular item is text, a photo, a chart, a recording, or something else. While I wouldn’t consider myself to be a Civil War expert by any means, I have read a few books on the subject and found the information contained within the app to be a good general introduction. It doesn’t go deep enough perhaps, but the information is presented in an engaging manner.



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