iBooks is a gorgeous app, but it’s driving me crazy.
There. I’ve said it.
When the iPad launched, iBooks was trumpeted as a gorgeous, easy, seamless app that would mix digital books with Apple’s typical ease-of-use. Sounds dreamy, right? And I suppose iBooks on the iPad must be good, because everyone raves about it.
But iBooks has been out on the iPhone for a little while now, and while I was initially excited to use it, it’s frankly frustrating. iBooks doesn’t act like an Apple app should; it crashes; and while it does lots of things well, other parts feels unfinished. Here, then, is a list of my complaints—things that Apple really ought to have fixed prior to release.
Please tell me I’m not the only one with this problem. Do I read too quickly for the poor app or something? About once every ten minutes, a page turn for me results in the app crashing—and it also forgets where I left off. Ugh!
Furthermore, when I attempt to open a downloaded book, I sometimes get the error message, “The requested resource is unavailable,” and iBooks will refuse to open said book until I restart the app, or even my iPod. These two errors are far too common, considering that they interfere with the most basic function of iBooks: reading!
Where Are the Books?
What’s the point of convenient, digital books if…you know…you can’t buy them in the first place? For me, the iBookStore is simply too small right now. “Tens of thousands” of books versus Amazon’s 600,000 for Kindle…hmm. As an avid reader, I was disappointed to find that many of the books I wanted simply weren’t available in iBooks. I’m not looking for the impossible, either. (Say, the 1980s Dragonlance books, or Harry Potter, which isn’t available anywhere; I’m talking modern, fairly successful authors like Naomi Novik!)
For those of us whose devices don’t allow for orientation-lock, this is immensely painful. When reading in bed, it’s easy to accidentally trigger a switch from landscape to portrait or vice-versa. Unfortunately, at least on an iPod Touch 2G, iBooks takes forever to make the switch—and while it’s struggling to rotate your book, it also freezes, preventing you from reading further. Fantastic.
Why can’t I switch the text to light-on-dark for nighttime reading? Dimming the screen works, but it still strains my eyes more to read dark-on-light text at night. The screen-lock problem already makes reading in bed hard enough!
First, selection is horrid. Secondly, prices are high—I can often order a real-life paperback for less from Amazon.
Third, and just as aggravating, is the store itself. There is no way to buy iBooks from your computer; and the iPhone screen is terribly small for browsing for books. Furthermore, the store is riddled with issues. When you go to “browse,” an alphabetical list of authors is displayed, split between “Top Paid” and “Top Free.” Now tap on “Categories,” chose one, and look. Now it shows you the top paid authors in that category…but if you click on “Top Free,” it’ll boot you back to the Top Free authors overall. What the heck?
Additionally, the store has no landscape view, and suffers from numerous other design issues. Not to mention the download errors.
iBooks isn’t a bad app. In fact, it’s got plenty of strong points—being able to browse for books right on the device is something I’ve wanted for a long time, and it’s a very robust reader. Bookmarks, highlighting, annotation…there are some really nice features baked into iBooks.
And that’s why the above issues make me so irritated. Apple is perfectly capable of making a fantastic eBook reader app. Regretfully, however, this version of iBooks isn’t it, at least not for iPhone / iPod Touch users. There are too many bugs, too many design flaws, and not enough books. It’s easy to tell that iBooks was crammed onto the smaller screen. And that’s a shame.
For now? I’ll be juggling Stanza and Kindle for iPhone as my two eBook apps of choice. Sorry, iBooks; I’m waiting for your next update.
The iPad is, along with the Kindle and the Nook, one of the first devices to bring the pleasures of eReaders to the masses. Unfortunately, it has brought the struggles of digital media along with it, casting users into a sea of confusion with new acronyms like ePub and mobi, among others. The most basic users will undoubtedly simply stick to Apple’s included solution and purchase all of their books directly from the iBooks store. This remains an incredibly simple and turnkey solution that even advanced users should consider. Other book sellers, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, each include similar storefronts, allowing purchases from the desktop on their websites and simple delivery to the iPad. Each of these interactions requires little more than several clicks and files never need to be transmitted from the desktop to the iPad itself. But what’s the more advanced user to do if the iBooks/iTunes combination isn’t enough?
Calibre's Conversion Dialog
Those that dare to wade into the more advanced waters of eBook reading will need a quick primer on their device’s capabilities. The iPad’s native reader, iBooks, currently only supports the open ePub format, although support for PDFs is promised in a forthcoming version showcased at WWDC alongside iOS4. It’s important to note that eBooks downloaded from any of the aforementioned stores (Amazon, B&N, and iBooks) may come in the ePub format, but each is locked down with its own proprietary digital rights management system, making files from one online bookstore unreadable in another company’s reader.
Yet there are a multitude of sources for unencrypted eBooks, including stores who sell books without DRM. Formats may become an issue in this case, with lit, mobi, and more serving as the defaults for several other popular mobile readers. In this case, a user’s best option for books management is Calibre, a terrific open source program that works with a wide variety of eBook formats and readers. I’d say Calibre is the iTunes for your digital book library, but I like to think of it more as iBooks’ desktop companion.
iBooks’ Best Friend
Calibre, available free of charge, deftly converts eBooks from most formats to ePub, PDF, and more. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping into the app and selecting an output format. Calibre can also download metadata and covers so iBooks properly organizes your book when it’s displayed on your iPad. The app also centralizes your books on your hard drive so there’s always somewhere to go to find the original eBook, just as iTunes attempts to centralize your music library in a folder on your hard drive.
Calibre offers simple solutions for moving these books to your iPad, with a recently unveiled “push-to-iTunes” feature that will seamlessly add books to a connected iPad. Otherwise, users have to go into their Calibre library folder and drag the books to iTunes’ iBooks panel (when an iPad is syncing). If you’re not an iBooks user, Calibre works perfectly with Stanza, one of my favorite apps.
Like to Read? You’ll Love Calibre
Calibre does what any good app does – removes the strictures of formats and medium and instead leaves the text itself as the most important part of the reading experience. A simple drag and drop enables users to convert books from any format to any other format with ease. The developers are great and the app sees frequent and innovative updates. Like most open source projects, it makes me want to donate – the software’s almost too good to be true. It does much more than converting eBooks, though, and it’s worth a look for anyone interested in reading, whether on your iPad or off. Get it here.
Most people who have seen my new iPad react with the same question, “should I get this or the Kindle?” Apple, obviously, intended its iPad to be perceived as much more than an eBook reader. Yet the much publicized launch of the iBookstore, along with the iPad’s slim form factor, have led many consumers to perceive the iPad as an expensive eBook reader.
The Kindle is the Premier eBook Reader
Amazon's Kindle 2
The Kindle was launched solely as an eBook reader and is marketed as such. Jeff Bezos, on introducing the device, said of the Kindle that “it’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.” Amazon has definitely done much of the legwork in improving the acceptability of the eBook as a new medium for written material. Amazon’s true innovation was bringing E-Ink technology to the consumer market, along with doing the technical legwork to simplify the reading experience. At its core, the Kindle is a delivery device – a user purchases a book as they would online and finds it available for reading seconds later.
The reading experience does everything it can to mimic the experience of paper, all of which is aided by E-Ink. The screen is technology’s response to those who complained that they would never be able to read a book on a traditional LCD screen or a laptop. The Kindle itself is merely the size of a large paperback and is lighter than most printed books. The Kindle is Bezos’ effort to translate the book for the digital age, and he has largely succeeded in providing a popular and widely accepted new platform.
The iPad as an eBook Reader
Apple's iPad with iBooks
The iPad has benefited from terrific interest from both book publishers and book retailers. As a consequence we’ve seen innovative new packages like the Vook and traditional books from retailers like B&N, Amazon, and more. While the Kindle has a terrific – and probably the largest – bookstore, the iPad offers more choices for where you get your ebooks.
There’s Apple’s iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle reading app, B&N’s new iPad reader, and more. The three largest players each offer different solutions to the eBook problem. iBooks tries to mimic the feel of a physical book, utilizing a color UI with beautifully rendered page turns. The Kindle’s UI is black and white and encourages the same type of user interaction as the physical Kindle – a simple tap on the side of the screen changes pages in a fluid transition not as visually distracting as that of iBooks. B&N’s app allows users to choose from dozens of different visual settings but maintains the same fluid page transitions as Amazon’s Kindle app. Only the iBooks app has a store in-app; the others force the reader to go to Safari to purchase books. This is a definite snag in the clear workflow Bezos presented with the original Kindle, but one that I’m sure both B&N and Amazon will surmount in future applications.
The iPad’s reflective LCD screen probably isn’t the best for simply reading a book. It’s a pain in the sun, where it’s nearly impossible to see the text on a page. E-Ink mainly solves this problem with its screen. People who have issues reading for long periods of time on their laptops may wish to reconsider an iPad purchase if it’s intended solely as an eBook reader. While the reading experience is cleaner and more enjoyable, it’s the same experience as the backlit screens most notebooks include. In addition, the iPad’s battery life is rated at 10 hours, enough for most commuters but nowhere near the weeks the Kindle can last for.
The iPad as a Platform: Bigger Than Books
A Vook on the iPad
The key differentiator between the two comes when we move beyond the simple eBook reading features. The Kindle includes a browser, but not one that functions nearly as well as the iPad’s. It’s black and white and renders incredibly slowly due to the E-Ink screen technology. The iPad’s Safari browser is widely regarded as one of the best on a mobile platform.
I’ve always seen the iPad as more than a traditional book reader as well. The Kindle simply translates the book reading experience into the digital age but strives not to completely alter the way we experience books. New features like Amazon’s Popular Highlights add subtle suggestions about the importance of a passage but do not redefine the reading workflow. Cool ideas like the aforementioned Vook change the reading experience by adding videos, multimedia, more information about certain topics (with links) and more. Could the iPad help the form of the written word change? Only time, and developers, will tell.
Those of you struggling with the decision to purchase an iPad or a Kindle might want to do some soul searching. What do you want from your portable device? Just books and nothing more? Buy a Kindle – that’s what it’s meant for. But if you’re looking for a small computer, with thousands of different and innovative new applications that could redefine reading, the iPad is for you.
PDFs for iPad?
Many publishers have simply translated their magazines to the iPad by making them into PDFs of the print version. Some, like Wired, have added custom UI layers and slight multimedia additions to spruce up their publications. The vertical and horizontal reading interface present in magazines like Wired show that publishers are trying to think out of the box, but they haven’t quite succeeded yet. Unfortunately, the current workflow may not work. A series by Ad Age this week shows that magazine publishers are taking the content from their print editions and dropping them into templates for the iPad. What would happen if magazines were custom designed for the iPad? If the content was specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad’s features? I hope we’ll be able to find out in the coming months.
I’ve reviewed six iPad magazine apps so far, each with their own set of pros and cons:
Wired: An interesting first attempt that falls short due to download size, quirky navigation, and its underlying architecture. Time: Interesting effort tying live content (News Feed) with magazine content but this is essentially just a PDFed magazine. Newsweek: The iPad-only edition it includes makes boastful claims, but the app itself can’t compete with the others listed here. GQ: The men’s interest magazine’s first iPad edition includes a bizarre navigation system but some useful innovations. Zinio for iPad: The popular and experienced magazine digitizers bring their platform to the iPad and make it one of the few viable options for those interested in magazines. Popular Science+: Like Wired’s app, bizarre navigation makes Pop Sci difficult to enjoy on Bonnier’s Mag+ platform.
So far, it appears that even lackluster efforts are producing success for publishers. There is clearly more potential for the medium and I’m sure content producers aren’t resting. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Lexcycle, acquired last year by Amazon, released a version of their popular iPhone/iPod touch eReader Stanza for the iPad last week. Stanza was my eReader of choice on my iPhone and I’m thrilled it’s finally been ported to the iPad. It’s a terrific reader that’s compatible with a wide variety of different formats. Before Stanza for iPad was released, I used Calibre to convert my eBooks to iBooks’ required ePub format. Stanza allows users to read in a whole bunch of formats, and the 3.0 release adds PDF, DjVu, and Comic Book Archive support to Stanza’s already extensive library of readable files.
Stanza includes the most customizable reading interface I’ve seen on a mobile application. It allows you to customize nearly everything, from the page turning animations (a slide like the Kindle’s or a page turning animation like iBooks’) to the background and color of the text. Stanza really does make the experience all about the text – the user is able to customize everything about the way the book is viewed. Barnes and Nobles’ app was lauded earlier this week for including the same customization but their application locks you into using their bookstore. Stanza lets you load your own books onto the iPad or iPhone. It also, however, allows you access to a variety of other eBook stores directly from the phone.
Stanza's Text Descriptions
Perhaps the application’s best feature is Stanza’s Detail views for text. Highlighting text using the traditional copy and paste mechanism in iBooks yields a tooltip that lets you bookmark (highlight) and look things up in the dictionary. It’s a more complicated scenario in Stanza but one that offers one additional option – the ability to share text on Facebook, Twitter, and through email. The detail view pulls up the paragraph in question in an iPhone-sized window and makes it easier to select text.
Stanza works perfectly with Calibre, my app of choice for eBook conversion. It now allows for a really simple workflow to get eBooks from the desktop to an iPad. It’s possible to move books by utilizing a computer as a wireless server, or by pushing them from Calibre into iTunes. It’s also possible to drag books into iTunes and into Stanza.
Stanza is the ideal reading experience, with customizable colors, animations, and more and compatibility with dozens of different formats. The Lexcycle team has succeeded in bringing the great iPhone app to the iPad and I, as an avid reader, am glad they did so.
Are you literate? Do you read long things online? If so, Instapaper Pro is a must-have. It allows you to download long articles and blog posts for on-the-go reading. Finesse, functionality, and overall awesomeness make it a true 5-star app.