Developer: Barnes & Noble
Price: FREE
Version Reviewed: 1.0

iPhone Integration Rating: ★★★★☆
User Interface Rating: ★★★★½

Re-use / Replay Value Rating: ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

First, Lexcycle’s Stanza was the runaway winner for eReaders on the iPhone: free, elegant, and with support for multiple online stores, it was the favored ebook reader of many. And then the Kindle app burst onto the scene along with the Kindle 2, Amazon bought Stanza, and it looked like Amazon had firmly secured a monopoly on the ebook market…especially on the iPhone.

Barnes & Noble apparently wasn’t too pleased with that situation, because they’ve just released a shiny new app: the B&N eReader. No, they don’t have a dedicated, physical eReader to go along with it, but the iPhone app release is accompanied by Blackberry, Windows, and Mac eReader releases. (A B&N reader made by Plastic Logic is scheduled to go on sale sometime in 2010.)

img_0118 When you first start the eReader, you’ll be asked to sign in or create a account. If you wish, this step may be skipped and you can read two of the free classics, but you’ll ultimately need an account to buy books, download free samples, and so on. All’s as expected so far. With that step done, you get to access your eBook library…and that’s where the telling differences between this app and the Kindle app are revealed.

See, the Barnes & Noble eReader app is actually organized. While you can view all of your books at once, they’re also automatically sorted by genre, and free samples are placed in a category of their own. You can also access your online library from the main page, to see all of the books that you have stored in the cloud. Additionally, you can create custom categories—which, for me, is a huge feature. It’s about time that we can finally sort our digital bookshelves, just as we can organize our music into playlists! Unfortunately, it’s a bit tedious to create new categories, as you have to edit the “information” section of each book to add it to the list…and the only way to get to that section is by opening up each individual book. Still, it’s a huge step over the Kindle app, which only allows sorting by “Recent,” “Title,” and “Author (Yes, the B&N app can sort by those selectors as well!)

The next feature up for evaluation was the actual book-reading experience. I opened up Stoker’s Dracula and toyed around with the options. Under the default settings, tapping displays a status-bar interface while swiping turns the page. The status-bar interface displays the book’s title, a button to go back to your booklist, and an iPod-style progress bar at the top. At the bottom, five options are displayed: Contents, Find, Invert, Scroll, and Settings.

img_0121Contents shows you the Table of Contents; simple enough, right? But it’s the other features that are truly awesome. The “Find” feature lets you search anywhere in the text; the Invert feature switches your display to night mode (more on that later) and the Scroll feature actually turns on automatic scrolling. That’s right: no-handed reading! (Well, if you have a stand of some sort.) The scroll feature works fairly well, and the speed is adjustable.

One of the main gripes that folks had with Version 1.0 of the Kindle app was its annoyingly sparse display options. While Amazon now allows you to adjust the font size and choose between black, white, and sepia displays, the B&N app goes much farther. You can adjust font size, the font itself, the line spacing, margins, and turn full justification on or off. Furthermore, you can create themes! Eight built-in themes are included (Black on White, White on Black, Parchment, Aluminum, etc.) but you can also create your own custom themes. One theme (Black on White, by default) is set to be your Daylight Theme, while another is set as your Night Theme (the default is White on Black). Simply tapping the Invert button while reading alternates between the two.

img_0123Another great feature of the B&N eReader is text selection. Tapping and holding any word brings up a menu, including dictionary look-up, note-adding, highlighting, Google look-up, and Wikipedia look-up. Nice!

The app includes “6 Free eBooks!” one of which is a dictionary, the other five of which are classics (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Little Women,” etc). To purchase books, alas, you still have to use Safari to access the website. (The Kindle app uses the same method.)

Still, the catalog is fairly diverse, with a purported 700,00 launch titles (compare this to Amazon’s 300,000 titles!). eBooks now have their own tab on the main B&N website, and the homepage prominently features the new eReader program. Most books are priced at (shocker!) $9.99, though some can be had for less. Plenty of classics, proudly bearing a “From Google Books” stamp, are free. However, in the Kindle Store, plenty of non-classics also bear that $0 price tag, and though their quality is sometimes iffy, people love free stuff. I’ve had a hard time digging through the catalog, but I’ve yet to find any 21st-century free books. Oh, well. You can download free samples, which is a lovely feature introduced by Amazon. One thing missing from the B&N catalog: all of the newspapers, blogs, and other publications present in the Kindle store.

All in all, the B&N eReader is a fantastic eReader program. The only shame is that there’s no dedicated eReading device out just yet, but the bookstore giant apparently has cross-platform support well embedded in its vision and a Plastic Logic device is said to be coming in the future. The eReader market could certainly benefit from a bit of competition, and B&N has a nice piece of software on its hands. What’s not to love? If you’re a fan of reading in any way, shape, or form, there’s no excuse for not having this (free) app on your iDevice. It’s just that simple.

Posted in: Books, iPhone Apps and Games, Reviews

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