iPad apps: for your reference

Sure, you've got an iPad, fancypants -- but do you know the boiling point of cobalt? No? Then what good are you, really? Fortunately, we're here to offer you an exciting opportunity to combine your love of 9.7-inch tablets with your thirst for knowledge by hooking you up with a list of some the best, brightest, and coolest reference apps available for the iPad today. You'll spend a few bucks to file most of these away in your 64GB (or 32GB, or 16GB) of memory, but you never know when you're going to be unexpectedly called upon to recite eight widely-spoken languages in South Africa, now, do you? Follow the break for the rundown!

Webster's New World College Dictionary ($14.99) - We all well know that there's a full dictionary lurking beneath the iPad's surface -- it makes an occasional appearance within some apps like iBooks -- but for whatever reason, Apple's chosen not to expose it universally, nor through a dedicated Dictionary app. Annoying, right? Not all's lost, though, because good ol' Webster came through with an iPad-optimized version of its 163,000 word-strong New World College Dictionary. This is a fairly no-frills app; it doesn't try to look like a real book, which is fine, but we would've liked to have seen text-to-speech pronunciation of words and maybe a few word mini-games thrown in for the whopping $15 these guys are charging. On the upside, you get wildcard and anagram searches -- perfect for the cheating Scrabble player in your life. [See in iTunes]

The Elements: A Visual Exploration ($13.99) - Arguably the most beautiful application launched for the iPad so far, The Elements is basically the most deluxe, visually engaging representation of the Periodic Table that you can imagine. Unless you're taking high school chemistry, there's not a lot of "value" to the app in the traditional sense of the word -- but the app is so tremendously well-executed that we found ourselves flipping through elements and learning about them just for the heck of it. Besides a full-screen details page for each element with melting and boiling points, atomic weight, density, and the like, there's a second page that offers a Wikipedia-esque prose description of the element and its practical applications; these pages typically also have a number of interactive images that can be spun around by swiping them for a little extra pizazz. There are also some WolframAlpha tie-ins for getting more detailed information that can be reached by tapping different parts of the screen. It's a tough sell for $14, but if you want to get a glimpse at the way all textbooks could very well look in a decade or two -- and be entertained in the process -- it's a fun buy. We can't imagine how much more interested we would've been in chemistry back in school if we'd had access to something like this. [See in iTunes]

WordBook XL ($2.99) - If you don't get tripped up on brand names when it comes to your occasional dictionary purchase, you might want to take a look at TranCreative's WordBook XL. Though it's got about 13,000 fewer entries than its higher-profile, pricier competitor, WordBook XL stomps Webster with a significantly richer feature set that includes a configurable text-to-speech system, multiple phonetic notations, links to third-party sources of information like Wikipedia and Google, user annotations, a thesaurus, and a Words of the Day feature that ropes in six seemingly random morsels of English vernacular for you to explore (we would've preferred more unique words than "arrange" and "sunny," but at least they've got the right idea). Like Webster, WordBook XL features wildcard and anagram solvers for the Scrabble lovers in the crowd -- too bad you can't multitask between this and the New York Times' crossword app, eh? [See in iTunes]

Wikipanion (free) - After Engadget, what's the site you consult most when you're in need of a little random knowledge? For many, the answer is Wikipedia -- and while Safari on the iPad does a commendable job of serving up the experience, there are plenty of ways it could be even better. Wikipanion is one of a handful of apps that takes a crack at making your iPad-powered time with Wikipedia just as good as it can be, throwing in a Contents browser for open articles in the left pane (in landscape mode) along with a list of related categories and a trick location-based search that pinpoints Wikipedia entries for spots around you and shows them on a map. This might sound a little crazy, but we think our favorite feature is actually the ability to change articles to a serif font on an off-white background, which gives Wikipedia a distinctly more book-ish feel than you're used to -- it's just a tiny bit closer to pulling a volume of World Book off your school's bookshelf. [See in iTunes]

WolframAlpha ($1.99) -

No list of reference applications would be complete without a mention of WolframAlpha, the self-described "computational knowledge engine" that should theoretically be able to figure out the answer to just about anything you ask it. The app's pretty basic -- it's just a text box for your query, a big space below it for the system's response, a list of predefined categories of queries to get you started, and a history list. That's all well and good, don't get us wrong -- but for $1.99, you'd have to be a Wolfram power user to justify buying it over simply using the system's free web interface, which provides just as detailed of a response (in as just as readable of a format) as the custom iPad app. Then again, what's two bucks for an optimized UI to help you dip into an everlasting font of high-quality information? [See in iTunes]

DrinkPad ($1.99) - Whether you like entertaining, you're a barkeep, or you're just a good, old-fashioned drunkard, odds are you'll find yourself mixing a potent potable at one point in your life or another. The iPad represents a pretty great form factor for viewing food and drink recipes, and DrinkPad certainly delivers -- it's got something over 2,000 drinks built-in which can be searched or browsed by base, flavor, or type, along with a selection of signature cocktails put together by well-known mixologists. If you find a recipe you adore, you can share it via Twitter (email and Facebook support are promised in the future). We'd like the ability to add our own drinks into the database and annotate the existing recipes, but considering how frickin' huge DrinkPad's collection is out of the gate, you may find you never need to augment it. [See in iTunes]

World Atlas HD ($1.99) - Remember that desktop globe your geography teacher used to have on his desk in school? Maybe you even had one at home? Yeah, well, burn those -- because World Atlas HD renders them painfully obsolete. The National Geographic-branded app offers the company's executive and political maps for the entire globe down to the nitty gritty detail, and when you zoom in close, you can optionally switch over to a road map provided by Bing (there's a Bing-supplied satellite view, too). You start out with global executive and political maps when you first install the map, but you can download additional maps for individual continents later on -- they're about 15MB apiece -- while the Bing stuff requires a constant internet connection to use. The app doubles as a world factbook by giving you high-level details on any country in the world (population, languages, GDP, and so on) and even lets you bookmark sites and add descriptions and your own photos as you galavant across the globe. For kids or families using the iPad as a learning tool, World Atlas HD is an easy recommend. [See in iTunes]