On the 18th January 2012 Wikipedia did something unprecedented. In light of the proposed SOPA legislation, the website blacked itself out for a whole day. This meant visitors to the site got only an anti-SOPA message and an explanation of why the site was therefore inaccessible. However, on the same day, while confused high-schoolers wailed at their lack of access, Wikipedia also launched an official Android application.
Although there were already a number of Wikipedia apps available on the Market, none of these are ‘official’. So what does the endorsed app bring to the table? And is it as good if not better than those already out there? And will you see regular appearances of Jimmy Wales’ face throughout this review? Read on to find out…
The first thing I noticed about the official Wikipedia app was its speed. There’s very little delay when it first loads up, and clicking highlighted links in any article gives you a very speedy return.
On the other hand, oddly, the front page “featured article” is hunched together, without any spaces for new paragraphs – rather, just a wall of dense text. Furthermore, the text is really quite small. You can increase the size; there are ‘Smaller’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Larger’ to choose from in the settings menu, but even the large size is going to still cause problems if your eyesight isn’t very good.
Relatively small font size
To summarise, then: it’s blisteringly fast, but the formatting is not so good.
If you’re unfamiliar with the other Wikipedia apps, articles are usually presented with the introduction and initial paragraphs showing, and subheadings are subsequently hidden and you need to press their tab to open them. This usually makes for easier reading, as you can jump straight to where you want to look. One of the things I’ve historically used Wikipedia for is tracing the careers of actors -as when I see a film and think ‘where have I seen her before?’, and this interface makes it easy to jump straight to a filmography.
Subheadings help with navigation
As you can see above, the official Wikipedia app also supports this format – very user friendly. You can also see that the text isn’t hunched and is far easier to read; although it should be noted the text size here is set to ‘Larger’.
One thing I felt a little let down by is that, if you make a spelling error while searching, the app doesn’t suggest the correct one. So, if you search for ‘Scarlett Johannsson’ (erroneous extra ‘n’), you just get a error message. Compare this to the actual website, which will make a suggestion with the correct spelling.
Fails to make a suggestion if spelling is incorrect
Opening the menu on any page gives you an assortment of features. You can change the language you are reading in; the app supports 32 different languages. You can also search for Wikipedia articles based on items ‘Nearby’ – for example, schools and local landmarks often come up on a map which you can then select from.
Also in the menu you’ll find your viewed article history. Additionally you can save a page and view your saved pages, which is like creating bookmarks in a browser. Then you have a ‘More’ tab which provides the options to share, forward, select text, view the About page and change the settings. The settings themselves are quite minimal: just language and font size.
Crucially, it’s worth comparing Wikipedia with the 3rd party clients which have been available for some time already. Most notable of these in my experience has been Wapedia from developers Taptu. Wapedia is without doubt an extremely feature-rich app which, like Wikipedia, lets you save pages. It’s also worth noting that both apps include the often brilliant photographs from the main Wikipedia website.
Rich interface, pictures looks great
However, Wapedia then goes above and beyond by providing access to a variety of community-created ‘wiki’s’. These include zones of information related to the media, film, books, entertainment, humour, games, lifestyle, technology, sports, health, religion and science. So, if you’re looking for a wiki on tennis or even zombies, there’s plenty of information to be found. This is not only incredibly rich and diverse, but it’s simple to access and regularly updated.
The problem then for Wikipedia is identifying how it can be superior. I did notice a slightly faster response from the official app over Wapedia, but this was generally very slight. Wapedia also offers customisations which include a better variety of text size and a white or black theme in addition to a widget. There’s just no getting away from the fact that, despite being the official Wikipedia app and being very quick, the likes of Wapedia are arguably some way ahead in terms of usability and functionality.
Wikipedia for Android lets you easily switch to other languages
Comparison: Wikitude World Browser
The other thing the official Wikipedia has over Wapedia is the ‘Nearby’ feature, which shows on a map Wikipedia entries for local places. This is quite cool and can obviously help you glean more understanding and awareness for the world around you… but, there’s already a Wikipedia client that does this, with very shiny bells on.
Wikitude World Browser is an augmented reality browser which allows you to search for local points of interest and then view the Wikipedia entry for it. Oddly, despite having the official Wikipedia app installed, Wikitude only gave me the option to view the article either in my browser or in Wapedia.
View through Wikitude World Browser AR
On top of this more basic functionality, Wikitude brings your environment to life by presenting local Tweets, restaurants, accommodation, pubs and loads more.
The problem therefore is that, combined, Wikitude and Wapedia already perform everything that Wikipedia does, and then a whole lot more besides. In order to differentiate Wikipedia might have offered users the ability to sign into their official account (if they had one), but this feature is sadly missing.
With this being an official app, you might have hoped to see a far richer experience, added user-friendly features and something that sets it apart. However, despite it being a smooth, stable and functioning app, it offers nothing new over the third party titles.
The official Wikipedia app is a great app and, as well as being fast and offering a slew of languages, is user-friendly and simple to navigate. The problem is, it offers nothing new to the Market. Apps like Wapedia and Wikitude have the space seemingly sewn up with functionality and added features which go above and beyond what Wikipedia is offering.
Of course it might be too soon to judge; Wikipedia for Android has only been out for a short time, and there may well be a smorgasbord of added functionality on its way. Time will tell.