National Geographic's Great Map App Lets You Take the World For a Spin
National Geographic's World app uses the organization's famous collection of maps from around the world to form the foundation of a zoomable, virtual globe. You can rotate in any direction and zoom in via intuitive pinching, expanding and rotating two-finger touches. It should be noted, though, that this app is mostly useless when you don't have an Internet connection.
The National Geographic Society may be best known for its iconic yellow National Geographic magazine, which very often includes, folded up inside, some awesome maps from all around the world. As a youngster, I remember pouring over National Geographic maps on the living room floor, hanging a map of North America on my bedroom wall, and using them as study aids in school.
So far, National Geographic Society has been a prolific app creator, producing 19 apps for the iPhone and 16 for the iPad. The latest: The World by National Geographic. It's a $3.99 app for the iPad only.
Taking the World for a Spin
The World app uses National Geographic maps from around the world to form the foundation for the app, but the organizing principle is a globe that you can rotate in any direction and zoom into via intuitive pinch, expand and rotate two-finger touches. As you zoom, you'll see yellow round balls that indicate there is a more focused area map to explore. For example, as you zoom into a Northwestern U.S. map, there's a ball for a more detailed Puget Sound map. Tap it, and you'll launch into that map.
Visually, the maps sort of appear to wrap around the globe representing their basic position on Earth. As you zoom in, they become more flat, of course, like paper maps.
In addition to the mesmerizing rotating globe navigation system, you can find or browse the maps by regional thumbnails. Additionally, if you want to find a particular nation of the world, some of which can be quite small and hard to find when you're feeling geographically dumb, you can browse alphabetically and tap on the country's flag when you find what you want.
When you tap a nation, the app will take you to a map of that nation, zoomed into it from within a larger map of the region. To the right, the app provides a list of basic facts about the country, including things like population, government type, capital, average life expectancy, currency and the like.
The nation details include some elegant photos from National Geographic and My Shot Community photographers -- the quality is fantastic, but there's not many photos for each country.
I found the polar regions particularly interesting, mostly because I rarely see polar maps, particularly that show good relation to the rest of the Earth. Of course, it's not often that I have a need to venture to the Arctic, virtually or in person.
Not surprisingly, the app also lets you share map views via email, Facebook or Twitter.
It should be noted that this app is mostly useless when you don't have an Internet connection. It seems as if some very basic maps are available when offline, but it usually takes very little zooming to end up with a bunch of blue circles of nothing, along with a pop-up warning box that says you need a network connection for full functionality.
It should also be noted that this app is more about paper maps as applied to an app than something like Google Earth. So, for example, while you can zoom into satellite pictures deeply into your backyard in Google Earth, you'll quickly run out of zoom as you dive into the "maps" in The World app. On my initial use, I expected to be able to zoom in pretty much indefinitely, even though the app never promised that feature. Still, there's something to be said for old-school map interfaces -- all the major information is usually always easily visible.
All-in-all, this is an excellent app. You can certainly get lost exploring the world through this app, but overall I expect, after my initial rundown of the world, to come back to it as a fast and easy geographic reference tool.