There’s no doubt that e-books are taking off like a rocket at the moment. Indeed, there are already dozens of articles proclaiming that the hardcopy book is dead, that bookstores will cease to exist within five years, and that authors should ditch their publishers and agents and go it alone in the brave new world of digital publishing.
I think we should take all such claims with a generous pinch of salt, but it remains true that reading books in electronic form is growing more and more popular, and that the range of e-books available is growing rapidly every day.
If you own a dedicated e-book reader like a Kindle, then your reading experience is going to be just as good, or bad, as your device. But if you own a multi-purpose tablet like an iPad, there are now many different e-reader apps available for you to consume your reading matter. Here I’m going to have a look at the top six e-book reader apps to see how they compare in usability and features (plus one web app as a bonus). To make the comparison as fair as possible, I compared the apps by looking at a public-domain work available in all stores.
Apple’s iBooks app is, of course, the definitive e-reader app for the iPad against which all others must be compared. There’s no doubt that iBooks is an excellent e-reader and sets a high bar for other apps to leap.
I use it for reading most novels on the iPad. I like its layout and generous margins, and it has a good range of fonts to choose from. Navigation is simple, and in particular I like the accurate indication of what page number I am on (e.g. “Page 123 of 456″), which is based on the true number of pages displayed in the current font and font size.
iBooks also has an excellent search feature, which starts work progressively as you type your search term, and gives you a very useful contextual list of the references it has found. I find this invaluable for reminding myself of who a character is if they haven’t appeared in the book for a while. There’s also a really good dictionary look-up feature.
There are, however, deficiencies and annoyances. Apple tries to make the app feel like reading a ‘real’ book by the use of a graphic approach which adds a faux hardcover binding, shading towards the center gutter, and a representation of page edges at the left and right. This fake and misleading hard-copy book metaphor was cute at first, but for day to day reading it’s a distraction, particularly for non-fiction works like textbooks. I also wish that you could set the brightness permanently – at the moment it changes back every time I return to iBooks, and the default is always too bright for my eyes.
If you buy books from the Amazon Kindle Store, then the Kindle app is your only option for reading them on the iPad in a native app (I discuss the recently-released Kindle Cloud Reader web app below). On the positive side, the Kindle app has a nice plain, non-distracting page, which I prefer to iBook’s faux hardcover book metaphor.
However, the margins at the left, right, and particularly at the bottom of the page in the Kindle app seem overly generous to me, and it doesn’t seem that you can adjust this in the settings. The settings are pretty limited, in fact. You can’t change the font, and there are only a few font sizes you can use, of which most are too large for my taste.
The Kindle ‘page turn’ animation is very clunky, no match for iBooks, and I settled for the simple page slide effect. The Search feature is pretty good, and gives you the same kind of contextual list of found items as iBooks, but the search is not progressive (that is, you have to type your full search term before starting a search). The dictionary lookup is very good.
What I don’t like at all is the bizarre ‘location’ numbers you see instead of page numbers. These give me no real sense of how far I am through the book, or how many pages I still have to turn to get to the end. It’s worth noting that for certain (academic) titles Amazon is now releasing books in a format which retains the original page numbering and layout of a text.
First, an important disclaimer. I live in Australia, and the Nook iPad app isn’t available for purchase here. So this assessment is based on using the Nook for PC application, and on looking at screenshots and reviews of the iPad app in the US App Store.
I really don’t understand why Barnes & Noble have restricted the availability of their app this way. Other retailers seem to have had no problem with this, even though they do restrict which books can be purchased in different regions of the world.
That said, I like the clean and attractive layout of pages in the Nook app, it’s clear that attention has been paid to how everything will look and work. Icons for controls are neatly tucked at the top right, and their use is obvious even without having hands-on experience with the app. You can select from three serif fonts and have a few different color themes available.
The app has an in-built dictionary lookup which seems simple but effective. Judging from the PC version, the search function is fairly limited - it’s not a progressive search, like iBooks, and you are just taken to the first instance, rather than iBooks’ context-based list of hits.
The online reviews of the Nook app are fairly critical of the latest update (29 July 2011), which appears to have removed the ability to customize text and background colors. But it now features the ability to purchase and read magazines as well as books.
Kobo’s reader app certainly wins points from me for its elegant design. Also on the plus side, the Kobo app has some rich social media features, enabling you to share your reading progress with your friends via Facebook, Twitter, or Email, as well as a slightly quirky ‘Reading Life’ page showing your various milestones in your reading progress.
It’s strangely fascinating to see the list of achievements, rather like gaining achievements in a video game: Tuesday, 3:47 pm, Halfway There! Whether this will encourage you to read or not, I’m not quite sure.
But, there are a number of usability quirks which I find annoying. Firstly, by default it applies something called ‘Kobo Styling’ to e-books, which is its own spin on how it thinks the book should look. Unfortunately, I don’t like that spin: the line-spacing is too great, and the margins are too wide. You can turn ‘Kobo Styling’ off in the settings, but there don’t seem to be any independent settings for things like line-spacing, paragraph spacing, margins, and so on.
Other annoyances include the way that the page number indicator only shows you paging within the current chapter, not through the entire book. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but it is for me. I really want to know how far through the book I am. The biggest lapse in the Kobo app is that there doesn’t seem to be any means of searching within a book. To me this is a big lapse – I often use search when reading a novel to remind myself of characters, places, and events. Put this down to my poor memory, if you like, but it does seem a pity to leave out this important function.
Bluefire Reader is an ‘independent’ e-reader app, that is, it isn’t tied to a particular e-book retail company. Its great strength is that it is able to read any e-books which have been protected by Amazon’s Adept digital rights management (DRM) scheme. This means that you can use it to read books from a wide variety of sources, provided the book has been released with the Adept scheme (or, of course, has been released without any DRM).
Many e-book retailers use this scheme, including Books on Board, probably my favorite such retailer. So does Kobo Books, by the way. Even better, many libraries will allow you to borrow e-books for a specified period, generally using the Adept DRM system, so Bluefire is ideal to read such loaned books.
As an e-reader app, it scores good points for usability. You can set the size of the margins, and have a number of choices of fonts and color schemes. Navigation is straight-forward, and although it doesn’t display a true page number indicator, it’s close enough when you are using a default font size for the difference to be negligible. It has a straightforward but usable search mechanism, but you don’t get the contextual list of found references that you get in iBooks or the Kindle app. On the downside, there’s no dictionary look-up feature.
Stanza is a venerable e-reader now. There was a time when it was the ‘go-to’ app for reading e-books on your iPhone, and it did a great job. I read quite a few novels that way. It took a while for an iPad version to appear (possibly due to the company having been sold to Amazon a few years ago), but it is now here, and does a great job.
It has the most flexibility of display settings of any of the apps discussed here – you can change almost every feature of how an e-book looks on your screen, down to individual settings for fonts, line-spacing, paragraph spacing, paragraph indent, margins, colors, and more. These can all be saved as themes (though like all the other e-reader apps you can’t select these on a per-book basis – the effects are global).
Stanza’s search feature is simple but good, giving you in a limited way the same kind of contextual list of found references you get in iBooks and in the Kindle app. There’s also a rather quirky way to do a dictionary lookup of a word (going through an intermediary dialog) but it does work.
Its downside, like Kobo, is that the page numbering indicator shown only operates on a per-chapter basis. Presumably if you had a book without any chapters then this would give a true indication of your progress through the book, but as it is you feel rather claustrophically confined to knowing how far you are through your current chapter. Yes, there’s a percentage indicator for the whole book, but that’s no help when you really want to know how many pages – how many page turns – you have to do to reach the end of the book. But, other than this annoyance, Stanza is as great an e-book reader on the iPad as it was (and is) on the iPhone.
The Kindle Cloud Reader is the “plus one” mentioned in the title of this post. Rather than a native iPad app, this is a web app, accessed and viewed in your browser, and specifically designed to avoid Apple’s restrictions on native apps selling content outside of Apple’s in-app purchase system. This roundup review is not the place to go into the politics of all of that, so I will restrict myself to just looking at the functionality of the app.
The Kindle Cloud Reader is a very clever demonstration of what is possible with HTML 5, as it looks and feels very similar to the native Kindle app I reviewed above. One of the clever features is that it is able to download the entire book so that you can read it offline, with no connection to the Internet.
However, it does omit many of the better features of the native Kindle app such as search, dictionary look-up, annotations, and so on. I presume this is because there is currently no way to pick up an event when the user holds down their finger over a particular word. And I do find myself wondering just who exactly this cloud-based app is designed for.
If you own an iPad why would you use this version of the app in preference to the superior native Kindle app? Just so that you can have the joy of clicking on a Kindle Store button? It hardly seems worth the loss of functionality.
Requires: Chrome or Safari web browser
There’s one big problem with comparing e-reader apps, and that is that the app you use is highly likely to be dictated by where you bought a particular e-book. Books bought from the iBooks store can only be read in the iBooks app. Books bought from the Amazon Kindle store can only be read in the Kindle app (or the new Cloud Reader).
Kobo Books makes it easiest for you to use the Kobo app to read books bought from its store, though with a little more effort you can also read them in Bluefire. All of this business of being locked in to a particular reader application comes down to the different kinds of digital rights management (DRM) applied to the books; and like all such schemes, is of more annoyance to honest customers than it ever is to serious pirates.
If the book you want to buy is only available through a particular store, then you won’t have any choice about what e-reader app to use. But we might turn this around and say that if you like a particular reader app, then you might well choose to buy a book from a particular store so that you can read it in that app. For me, if I have a choice I would probably prefer to use Apple’s iBooks app, despite some of its annoyances, provided always that the book I want is available in Apple’s store, which is by no means guaranteed.
The Kindle app annoys me so much to use that I avoid buying books from the Kindle Store if they are available elsewhere. Kobo Books has a great range, particularly here in Australia, but I don’t much like its e-reader, so I go through the process of downloading the books I bought onto my PC and then (legally!) transferring them to the Bluefire app on my iPad. Stanza is a great e-reader app, which I would love to use more, but it can really only be used to read DRM-free books.
I look forward to the day when the book publishers see the light the same way that music publishers did, and drop their DRM schemes. Only then will we be able to select an e-book reader solely on its features rather than on whether it can read the books we have bought.