Legendary British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough turned 90 this year. In honor of this milestone, the BBC has released Attenborough Story of Life, a free iPad app that lets you stream more than 1,000 clips from his many excellent nature documentaries. For the sheer variety of fascinating, free nature clips from all over the world narrated by this amazing documentarian, Attenborough earns an Editors' Choice for educational iPad apps.
Here's a little background on the man himself: As a BBC administrator responsible for programming from 1965 to 1973, he commissioned a number of groundbreaking shows, most notably Monty Python's Flying Circus, but he realized that his real love was in making the documentaries. In the years since, Attenborough has narrated more than 40 such BBC nature programs, including Life on Earth, Planet Earth, and Blue Planet. He has gone on many field expeditions, and narrated accounts of the animals and people he encountered in them. As an odd side note, he is perhaps not well liked by some Boaty McBoatface fans, because the arctic research vessel for which the crowdsourced name Boaty was the popular favorite was instead named for Attenborough by the British government early this year.
The Attenborough app is available in both iOS and Android versions. I tested it using an iPad Air 2, taking advantage of the tablet's relatively large screen to display the gorgeous videos.
The home screen shows a picture of Attenborough and the title of the app. When opening the app for the first time on a given day, you have to sit through a 20-second ad, but after that, the clips run ad-free. The first section you encounter shows clips—narrated by Attenborough, as are all the clips that I viewed—of each of the African Big Five animals: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and cape buffalo. You exit a video by tapping an X in its upper right-hand corner, and you can access additional featured videos by swiping your screen from left to right.
By swiping upward, you reach a page titled All Clips, and you can view a double layer of thumbnails by swiping the screen carousel-style. This is fine for browsing smorgasbord-style, but for a more focused view, you need to use the Search function. You activate this by touching the magnifying-glass icon at the screen's upper right corner. This calls up an alphabetical list of topics, from as general as Africa (tapping it shows thumbnails for 35 entries) to Adélie penguin, which still offers a generous seven entries.
Another way to navigate in this thumbnail section is by tapping the Explore button (whose icon is concentric circles) at the left-hand edge of the screen. This brings up a wheel that fills the screen; you run your finger around the wheel's edge to see different topics. These include such choices as Coastal, Forest, Urban, Favourites, Traveling, Playing, Mating, Plants, Reptiles, and Fish. Tapping on a subject brings up thumbnails showing related content.
In testing the app, I viewed several dozen of the videos. Most were beautifully filmed and all were well narrated. Many showed some seldom-filmed phenomenon, such as a night view of a pride of lions taking down a young elephant, the first filming of a rare species, or a peculiar characteristic of a species. For example, female gibbons are occasionally unfaithful to their mates, which may actually be a protective measure, because a male gibbon might be hesitant to attack a young gibbon if there's a chance he might be the father. Many of the apps I download don't hold my interest. Once I'm done testing them, I put them down forever. But I can see myself going back to Attenborough again and again whenever I want to deepen my appreciation of the natural world—or when I need an escape from the stresses of life.
The app has good social media integration. Each video's launch screen has a Share icon in its upper right corner. From here, you can send a link to the video via Messenger, email, Twitter, or Facebook. You can also save to the Notes app. The link goes to the app's Web page on BBC Earth, and you launch the video by clicking on a Play button on the page's lower right corner. Note that any will recipients will have to sit through a brief ad before the video starts.
Unlike the Ken Burns iPad app, which shows clips from many of that filmmaker's documentaries, Attenborough is totally free, the only price being watching a brief ad on startup once per day. With Ken Burns, only the first of nine sections is free; you have to pay $9.99 to unlock the rest of the app. If you want to see the full Attenborough documentaries from which most of the clips are taken, however, you would have to buy the shows on DVD, Blu-ray, or via download or streaming (as is also the case with the Ken Burns documentaries), or wait for them to air on BBC America. The Attenborough clips are very self-contained however. I don't feel like I'm missing anything by not seeing the full documentaries, as I did when watching the Ken Burns clips.
The Attenborough Story of Life iPad app is a magnificent tribute to Sir David Attenborough, who has narrated numerous wildlife documentaries on location in a career spanning more than six decades. Featuring more than 1,000 clips narrated by Attenborough, the app showcases the wonder and diversity of life on Earth. This easily searchable app streamed video well over several Wi-Fi connections, with no hangs or glitches. It's a clear Editors' Choice for educational iPad apps.