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Brian Cox's Wonders of Life review: Great content, but needs better presentation

The Brian Cox's Wonders of Life app brings an excellent BBC documentary experience to your iOS device, but some interface choices will leave you wanting more.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
4 min read

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life is another scientific app based on a show from the BBC, with great video and interactive sections that help you learn the scientific basis for life as we know it. Professor Brian Cox is your guide and narrator as you explore the app.


Brian Cox's Wonders of Life

The Good

<b>Brian Cox's Wonders of Life</b> offers tons of photographic, video, and interactive content to explore. The music is a great backdrop for the content. Cool interactive sections give you an intimate look at life.

The Bad

Browsing the world freely is disappointing. Music goes away when you read text content, pulling you out of the experience.

The Bottom Line

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life is worth the money, but you'll need to follow the app's intended narrative to fully enjoy the experience.

In the past, I wrote about Wonders of the Universe from the same publisher; an elegant and visually gorgeous app that let you explore our known universe on your iPad.

I liked Wonders of the Universe quite a lot for the ability to explore the universe and the HD graphics (particularly with the retina display). But with this new app, the content is laid out in such a way that it continually interrupts the enjoyment of exploring the science behind life. With a mix of videos, text, interactive photos, and great musical score, there is plenty of great content here. But the mix doesn't flow together well, and has a way of pulling you out of enjoying the overall experience.

Exploring life on our planet (pictures)

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Follow the story
Unlike Wonders of the Universe, I found that your best bet with this app is to follow along with the story as it was intended using "Brian's Tour" rather than browsing around freely. The problem is that if you browse around, you'll lose the context of the story, and looking at a specific section doesn't provide you with much interaction. To get the best experience, touch the thumbnails across the bottom of the screen sequentially from left to right so you can follow the story.

As you progress, you'll come across thumbnail photos you can swipe upward to read more and also watch videos. Often when you swipe a thumbnail up, you'll also get an image in motion (like a looping animated GIF), along with music that introduces the section you're learning about.

With another swipe upward, you can read through the story, and in-line HD videos play automatically as you scroll through the text, while images darken the rest of the screen so you can get a closer look. To get back to reading, you simply swipe up again, and the image or video minimizes back into the page to where you left off.

There are also lots of smaller interactions as you follow the narrative that are really neat. As an example, you can browse to a living animated cave-like setting where an animated camera is taking burst shots as bent-wing bats fly by. Touch the bent-wing bat indicator on-screen, and you'll be presented with high resolution shots of the bats as they fly by. It's really neat to see things like this close up, and you can then pull the thumbnail up from the bottom of the screen to read more and watch an HD video about them to get the full story.

Great content, questionable presentation
There is a lot of fantastic scientific information here to explore (I can't stress this enough), but I have several issues with the way much of it is displayed.

For example, when you zoom in to the Earth's surface, there are only a limited number of anchor points you can touch to see more info. For example, from Earth's orbit (the default view), your only choices are to look at North America, Africa, and Australia. So, when browsing blindly (without following the narrative), it will feel like there isn't nearly enough content to look at.

But when you follow the narrative, you'll realize it's all part of a continuous story that is explained using examples from those specific geographic regions. In other words, while our world within the app is browsable, it's kind of a waste of your time. I'm not sure if it's because it feels like a documentary shoe-horned into an app, but it doesn't feel like this app was as well thought out as Wonders of the Universe.

Another problem with the app is that the music goes away during parts when you're reading more information. Though it may seem like a minor problem, what it does is take you completely out of the app's interactive experience, leaving you to read through the story. Zoom back out and the music starts again, but the result is an interrupted experience that takes away from the many great things about the app.

Brian Cox's Wonders of Life is packed with information that makes for a great documentary, but turning it into an interactive app only makes sense in some situations, and not in others. On the plus side for the app, the graphics are smooth with HD video and photos, the looped GIFs bring life to locations, and the background music provides a sense of wonder as you explore.

But somehow, in this mix of great things I like, certain aspects of the app pull me out of the experience. The free-browsing of the world gives the impression that there's not much to look at. Stopping the music during text content makes me feel like I'm reading an iBook rather than exploring an interactive app. It just seems like there must be a better way to design the app around all of this great content.

Still, if you can get past the problems and follow along with the narrative, there is a lot to learn here. Just be prepared to muscle through some of the app's rough edges in order to get to all the excellent information about life on our planet.


Brian Cox's Wonders of Life

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 6Interface 7Performance 7