Review: CIA World Factbook apps for the iPhone

Ben Boychuk
17 August, 2009
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App Guide

The CIA World Factbook is arguably the best value for a research almanac, bar none. The Factbook provides detailed information on the geographies, economies, populations, and militaries of more than 250 nations and territories spanning the globe. And all of the information is in the public domain, making it an attractive resource for developers to repackage and sell for the iPhone and iPod touch.

I reviewed two World Factbook apps last year: Western ITS’ World Factbook 2008 and Tech Lumina’s World Wiki Plus. Since then, at least three more World Factbook apps have appeared in the iTunes App Store.

Since the information in all of these apps is essentially identical (some apps exclude the useful CIA World Factbook appendices), the question then becomes: how do the apps present the information? What value do these applications add to data that the user would have little trouble finding with a few taps on Safari? WorldWiki Plus, for example, lets you listen to a country’s national anthem if you have a 3G, EDGE, or Wi-Fi connection—a nice addition you obviously won’t find in a book.

So, once again, user interface is everything.

Whole New World: The 2009 edition of Western ITS’s World Factbook is a marked improvement over previous versions, boasting excellent search features and the ability to add notes to entries.

I don’t know if Western ITS read my review of its World Factbook app, but the 2009 edition is, in certain respects, a marked improvement over the older iteration—starting with a 40 percent price cut. (The app now costs $3.99.) The 2009 edition has an excellent search, landscape support, and the ability to add notes to entries. Why don’t all e-book and reference app developers let users take notes?

But the app still lacks the appendices—an unforgivable sin of omission of which jDictionary Mobile’sThe World Factbook ’09 and Real Puppy Software’sWorld Factbook are also guilty—and the maps are still too simplistic (although rendered at a much higher resolution). What’s the point of adding landscape support if you can’t zoom in and out of the maps?

More on Mexico: jDictionary cleverly breaks down entries in its World Factbook app by category.

The World Factbook ’09 by jDictionary, makers of the low-priced Concise English Dictionary & Thesaurus app, is another example of a fine resource undone by a bland interface. The app launches into a search directory, but browsing is awkward. Tap the “cancel” button on the search and the app dumps you out to the splash screen. Why? The app has no landscape support and you cannot adjust the type size—a preventable affliction that besets all of these apps.

On the positive side, you can bookmark entries and each page is broken down by category. And the app incorporates Google Maps, which is an inventive way of letting users explore a country’s geography. I found, however, that the maps were very slow to load. (Naturally, the Google Maps feature requires an Internet connection; otherwise, the app functions just fine offline.)

Let Your Flag Fly: Among the many problems with Real Puppy Software’s World Factbook is a flag browser, which turns out to not be much of an extra.

Real Puppy Software’s World Factbook similarly suffers from an uninspired interface. The type is much too small. And the pinch-zoom does not wrap text to the screen, making it useless. Worse still, there are no maps, making the app even more useless. The app instead features a “flag browser,” which isn’t much of an extra since each country entry displays the nation’s flag at the top of the page.

And the app’s “search” feature isn’t a proper search so much as a browser enhancement: Tap the search button at the top of the screen and up pops a scroll wheel featuring the article’s subsections. That makes it easier to scroll through to the information you are looking for about a particular country—the agricultural output of Bolivia, say—but it isn’t helpful if you want to search the entire Factbook.

Rank and File: Fuzzy Peach’s World Factbook app features a section that ranks countries based on a wide range of data.

The best of the lot by far is Fuzzy Peach’s2009 World Factbook. The app is gorgeously produced, with a tasteful white-on-blue colour scheme, clean type and sharp graphics. Not only does the app include all of the CIA World Factbook’s appendices, it also boasts superior maps that users can zoom and out of easily with a pinch or stretch of the fingers.

Fuzzy Peach adds even greater value to this $1.19 app with a section that ranks countries in order drawing on a wide range of data fields, from population growth rate and fertility to the number of mobile phones and Internet hosts. (The United States, by the way, is on top of the world with 316 million hosts, more than double the number of the next nine countries on the list combined.)

Alas, Fuzzy Peach’s effort with 2009 World Factbook suffers from two notable flaws: You cannot alter the type, which is quite small, and there’s no landscape support. Users might be able to live without the landscape, but the typeface really needs to be adjustable.

The CIA World Factbook remains one of those indispensable reference works. But, so far, there is still no indispensable World Factbook app.

The World Factbook apps from Western ITS and Fuzzy Peach are compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.2 software update. Real Puppy’s app requires the iPhone 3.0 update, while jDictionary’s offering runs on the iPhone 2.x software.

[Ben Boychuk is a columnist and freelance writer in Rialto, Calif. Feel free to e-mail him.]

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