Star Trek has a special place in tablet history. The so-called PADDs (Personal Access Display Device) that were introduced in the series The Next Generation in 1987 showed us how small, light tablets were common in the future. While the series was set in the 24th century, it didn’t take more than 20 years before that future became reality. With the release of the iPad mini, which is perhaps the best real life approximation of the size and weight of a PADD so far, it’s very hard to not see the similarities between fiction and real life. It’s therefore fitting to give the official Star Trek PADD app, just released in version 2.0, a review.
The PADD app has been out for a while, and there isn’t really much new in version 2.0, but the iPad mini has really given this app new life. It’s a novelty app after all, and a very niche one at that. In fact, it’s hard for anyone who is not a Star Trek fan to understand how awesome the combination of this app and an iPad mini is. Star Trek fans have been making pro PADDs for decades, and now you have an actual working one that is the size and weight of an actual PADD.
Anyways, let’s get into the actual app. This is an official app by CBS Interactive, which I guess owns the tights to Star Trek now. It’s designed around the LCARS interface, a fictional interface introduced in the same series the PADD was. LCARS was never the most practical of UIs, seeing as though it was fictional and all, so making it work in reality is a challenge. This is achieved by actually renaming some of the randomly named on-screen buttons of LCARS. Apparently, no one thought of on-screen buttons that changed their labels in 1987, so buttons are normally labeled things like LG8. The buttons in the app are split between working, properly labeled buttons, and a whole bunch of dummy buttons. The dummy buttons don’t do anything, but make the app beep and give you random error messages like “Access restricted” and “this is not a replicator.” It’s all made to keep that LCARS charm, and it wouldn’t be Star Trek without it. Ironically, this backwards fictional science fiction UI from 1987 still has a better tablet layout than most things on Android…
The app is however not just buttons that go “beep” and an amusing and familiar UI. The Star Trek database is built into the app, meaning that it actually works like an encyclopedia. In fact, it’s mostly the same information that you found in the old Star Trek Encyclopedia, a book I still have in my shelves, and used to death 10-15 years ago. As a geek, it’s amazing to go from reading about PADDs in a paper book 15 years ago to reading the same information on such a device today. It brings back memories for sure.
The app is divided into sections, essentially just categorizing the information into places, ships, cast, and so on. Each database entry contains anything from a line or two of information to lots of information an an image gallery, all depending on what the entry is. Unfortunately, the official Star Trek database is quite horribly in the grand scheme of things. Memory Alpha, which is an unofficial Star Trek Wiki, probably contains ten thousand times as much information. No, I’m not exaggerating. The entry on Deep Space Nine (the space station, not the series) in the app is not much longer than what’s in the comparison photo at the top, while this is the entry on Memory Alpha. Also, while it claims to be updated, the app really isn’t. For instance, the Enterprise J, seen in the third season of Enterprise, is not mentioned at all in the app. Neither is the Narada, Nero’s ship from the 11th Star Trek movie, aka what people mistakenly think is the first movie- J.J. Abrams’ franchise reboot from 2009. This and this are the respective entries on Memory Alpha.
Point being, while it’s nice to have the app actually do something, what it does isn’t actually very useful. A lot has changed in the 15 years since the Star Trek encyclopedia was a good source of information, and this app is frankly just that book in a slightly updated form. This is an official app, so it’s to be expected, but to actually serve as a useful source of information this would have to be a gateway to Memory Alpha, not the official Star Trek database.
There are also a few new non-encyclopedia features, namely a news section, Twitter, and Facebook integration. That’s neat, but nothing you’re going to log onto the app specifically to check out. Again it has to do with it all being official, and unfortunately that means that there’s nowhere near the dedication of pushing out updates and information that you would have seen from a third party project.
All in all, the Star Trek PADD app is a novelty. While it’s full of information, that information is so outdated and scarce that it really becomes a matter of having information there for the purpose of giving the interface something to display in between UI elements. You won’t use this app to look up information, you’ll use it to play with a “real” Star Trek PADD. The beeps the dummy buttons make when pressed are in themselves more valuable to a true Trekker than the information in the app, and that’s OK. I’ve never been to a Star Trek convention, mainly because I live in Norway, but I’m fairly certain that this app loaded onto iPad minis is going to be a very common sight on those in the future. Trekkers have paid for PADD props for years, and now you can get a working one for the “low” price of $330 for the iPad and $5 for the app. For anyone who’s not a Star Trek fan, however, this app is going to be less than useless.