All eReading apps are not created equal

Since buying my iPad earlier this year I have tried out some of the reading apps available for the platform. I don’t have any plans to use the device for all my eReading (I much prefer eInk readers) but as I tend to have my iPad with me on occasions when my other eReader is not available and because the eBook market is fragmented enough that some books are only available on a single platform I can see myself using the iPad as a backup eReader. A couple of general points first

  • The only app that allows you to buy books from within the app is Apple’s own iBooks. The rest of the apps have removed this functionality rather than pay Apple its vig (30% of all sales). So I’ve deliberately not factored in-app purchasing into my ratings as I’m pleased the non-Apple app developers didn’t cave in to Apple’s standover tactics on this issue and all make it fairly easy to buy books outside the app and synchronise easily with the app.
  • All of these apps are free to install

Kindle app (the app not the cloud reader) – 4.5 stars

Having deliberately avoided buying a kindle as my eReader (not because I don’t like the devices but because I wanted to do my bit to fight Amazon’s market dominance) I wanted to dislike this app but I can’t. It is the reading app by which I judge all others. Its highlights include:

  • synchronizes seamlessly with all the devices Amazon knows you have (e.g. dedicated kindle reader, PC kindle app, phone app etc). If you read 5 pages of a book on your phone at lunch time then take out your iPad to continue reading on your trip home you’ll start at where you stopped reading on the other device. This is one of those features of technology that sounds like nothing until you use it when it suddenly has wow factor
  • allows all the note-taking, highlighting and bookmarking you could want at the touch of a screen
  • has a terrific dictionary (again available at the touch of a screen) which even copes with non-US slang terms and ‘ye olde English’
  • has easily customisable brightness/background options (so you can turn the backlit screen into something far less eye-strain inducing)
  • full text searching of the content of your books
  • a good choice of font sizes and styles

The only thing I can think of that it doesn’t do is allow you to organise your books on shelves/in collections as you can do on a kindle device itself. It doesn’t matter to me as I delete books once I’ve read them and only have a couple of TBR book in the app at any time but if this was your eReading app of choice I imagine it would get annoying to only be able to organise alphabetically by title or author (and I am frankly baffled at its absence given the capacity exists in kindle reading’s other incarnations).

Amazon also offer a web-based ‘reader’ very similar to the Booki.sh service discussed below but I haven’t tried it out (and don’t plan to).

iBooks app – 4 stars

Not surprisingly Apple’s device comes pre-loaded with Apple’s own eReading app. As books in the Apple store are the most expensive eBooks I’ve found I’ve only used it to read free books, including the two iPad user guides I downloaded when I bought the device and some other reference books.

iBooks does have most of the features of the Kindle app except the easy synchronisation with other devices (and heaven forbid you should want to read an iBook on a non-Apple product as this is simply impossible). The page turning/loading is also noticeably slower than with the Kindle app. It does however allow you to create your own collections/shelves which is the one thing the Kindle app doesn’t do.

I cannot imagine why anyone is buying books through this app. I looked at a dozen or so books I was interested in buying and none were cheapest in this app and if you have an iPad you have access to all the other apps so why bother with this one? Unless the pricing is an anomaly of the Australian market?

Booki.sh Cloud ‘app’ – 3 stars

I have already done a full review of this service which is a web page rather than an app but I am including it here because its use case and features mirror these other reading apps. It is a cloud-based service that requires a 3G or wi-fi connection to use as it downloads a portion of a book at a time. You can cache a whole book to your ‘satchel’ if necessary but you can’t store a whole library on your device at once.

As a reader it has most of the basic features I look for though it does not allow note-taking or highlighting and it can’t, by design, tell you how many pages you have left to read (essentially it doesn’t know). I do find this pretty annoying.

Cloud services are not for everyone but if you have relatively ubiquitous access to 3G or wi-fi it’s worth considering because there’s something to be said for having your library be device independent (you can read a Booki.sh book on any device with a modern web browser and you’ll never have to worry about re-synchronizing devices or losing access to your library if you lose a device).  You can bookmark Booki.sh books and these remain even after you return the book to your online library so I don’t understand why annotating and highlighting aren’t also available. These additions would make this a very competitive option (especially for Aussies as lots of Australian publishers seem to be using the service).

Overdrive app – 2 stars

This app is not associated with a specific store and allows you to read ePubs, PDFs and most other formats except Amazon’s proprietary format. It’s the app that Australian eBook retailer Booku synchronizes most easily with (as do many other eBook retailers and sites like Smashwords) and is also the app used by most libraries offering eBook loans (my own library does not yet do this so I haven’t tried that aspect of the app).

It is a pretty basic app that seems to be missing some features I’d have thought standard by now. There is no note taking or highlighting available, no dictionary and unlike all the other apps I’ve tried its choice of font sizes is very limited. There are 2 choices only, they’re not that different and neither seems to be equivalent to large print (which is at least 16pt font). The other apps have a range of 6-8 font size choices, several of which are very large and suitable for a range of vision impairments. I imagine this feature is very important to some people, especially those with specialised needs, and it really should be standard.

Kobo app –  2 stars

The Kobo eBook store is the best one I’ve found for non-American readers of non-Amazon eBooks (i.e. ePubs) so I was keen to try the app. I read a book that I had bought for my dedicated eReader because the store does allow me to download to books multiple devices (though it doesn’t synchronise them).

Frankly this app just made me cross because, unlike this person, I think reading is more important than tweeting about reading or ‘visualising’ my reading. The Kobo app’s ‘features’ include

  • Seamless integration with twitter and Facebook so that every page turned, comment made, book started/finished, badge obtained can be recorded and shared with your ‘friends’
  • Badges/Messages/Reading Live Awards when you ‘achieve’ certain goals (getting to a certain percentage of a book etc)
  • Coming soon is something called Kobo Pulse which has an indicator that gets larger and brighter as you reach pages in your book that have generated more comments and reader activity in the associated social space (‘saints preserve us’ is the phrase that leaps to my mind at this point)

I find this kind of stuff inane and believe it is possibly an indicator of the imminent demise of our civilisation but as Kobo does allow you to turn most of it off I could have ignored it. What frustrated me is that all their development energy seems to have gone towards this nonsense and the reading features of the app have suffered. For example:

  • one of the most wonderful features of eBooks is the ability to search them easily but the Kobo app has no search feature (or if it does I could not find it amidst all the sharing options and there is no search feature mentioned in the app’s introductory slides)
  • Instead of telling you how many pages there are in a book (or locations like the Kindle app or percentage like other apps use) this app only ever tells you how many pages there are in the chapter you are reading. This felt like part of the ‘treat readers like illiterate 9 year olds’ philosophy which prompted the sharing/awards/badges ‘features’ (unlike the Booki.sh cloud app discussed above there is no technical reason for this). It does have a progress bar of sorts along the bottom but it works poorly (seeming to move backwards and forwards based on the size of the chapter you are reading rather than continuously moving forward).
  • The app also appears to have a technical glitch that makes it seem like it’s constantly downloading something. The network spinner icon works constantly when the app is running though it’s not possible to tell if it’s just the icon being wonky or if data is being downloaded or uploaded in the background. Being in Australia where data is expensive I’m careful about how much data I use/transmit when my iPad is in 3G mode so this worried me enough to go to the bother of turning off 3G each time I started reading (this takes a few moments and means the dictionary doesn’t work). I did leave a comment about this in the Kobo forum but so far no response (to be fair it’s only been a few days). The books are stored locally on the device (unlike cloud readers) so there is no need for data to be constantly transmitted. Unless of course the damned app is busy ‘sharing’ even though I turned those features off.

I realise I am in the minority of human beings who will not feel enriched (Kobo’s word) by having my life constantly interrupted by my friends sharing their favourite passages of the books they are reading (or visa versa). I am sure the sharing features of this app will probably appeal to many others. And I wouldn’t care if these features existed alongside what I consider basic features of an app that is supposed to enable you to read but I’ve been hard on this app because some basics seem to have been forgotten. I am also averse to being treated like a child.

Copia app – 0 stars

Copia is a fairly new online community combined with an eBook retailing service. It feels a bit like a combination of Good Reads (for eBooks only) and a book store.

Strictly speaking this rating is not entirely fair as I was unable to purchase the book I wanted in the Copia store and could not therefore try out the app. It turns out the store is only available to Americans. This is not a new thing and normally I would have just walked (virtually) away shaking my head. But I am particularly annoyed when I have gone a fair way through the shopping process (about 3/4 of the way in this instance) and then discover the store has forgotten (if it ever knew) there is an entire world outside the 50 states. My time might be less valuable than that of an American but it is worth something. I did submit a support query and was told that they were aware of the glitch and I should be happy with the free books. This dismissive attitude annoyed me even more than the initial problem (I have all the poorly formatted, typo-ridden copies of Pride and Prejudice that I need thanks very much) which is why I have rated the app a great big zero and removed it from my iPad never to be tried again. How could Copia have avoided this snarky behaviour on my part? Put a big red warning sign at the top of the page saying that you can only buy books if you live in America.

Summary

So my app of choice for the iPad is the Kindle app as it offers all the things I consider important (annotations, bookmarking, font size choice, text searching and dictionary). The seamless synchronisation across platforms and devices is a great bonus. Though my dedicated eReader is still my main eReading device I will be happy to use the kindle app for as a secondary/backup device. The only other ‘app’ I am likely to use semi-regularly is the Booki.sh service, especially if it continues to offer lots of Australian titles.

The plethora of reading apps is a bit of a worry really as it does speak to the market fragmentation and the lack of cross-platform compatibility. Never had that problem with physical books did we? Anyone who is planning on using multiple reading apps on an ongoing basis would, I think, need to utilise a third party eBook management program (the best of which by a country mile is Calibre). Or at the very least register all your books on a site like Good Reads or Library Thing and include tags for which store/app you’ve downloaded a book to.

Have you used any of these apps? Any others? Have you compared apps on different devices? Are there any other apps you think I should try? 

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12 Responses to All eReading apps are not created equal

  1. Jose Ignacio says:

    Thanks Bernadette. I found very useful your entry. I have not make up my mind yet on which e-reader to buy, but your information will help me very much in my final decision.

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  2. What a terrific post. I have the Kindle and iPad and my favorite app is the kindle one, for all of the reasons you describe. It is also fantastic, if you own a Kindle, to be able to borrow poplar eBooks from the library to read on your Kindle with the click of a finger.

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    • Thanks Diane. I can certainly see the appeal of having a kindle device too and I do like the look of the new kindle touch devices so I may think about that when my Sony eInk reader bites the dust. I do much prefer a touch screen device for some reason.

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  3. Bernadette – Thanks for this really helpful rundown of the different apps. I’ve actually tried Copia ‘though not bought it and believe me, you are missing nothing. As to Kindle, I use that reader quite a lot. I have the Kindle-for-PC version and I agree with all of your well-taken points about its functionality. I have the Sony E-Reader for PC, too, and it’s been interesting comparing them. In most ways, they’re not that different. Oh, and I’m not that much for Kobo either. Besides the condescension issue, I prefer to read a book and then discuss it, rather than discuss it while I’m reading it. That could just be my quirk, though…

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  4. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

    I use Stanza ( http://www.lexcycle.com/ ) as a reader on my iPod Touch (also available for iPhone and iPad) almost exclusively, and in conjunction with Calibre, its perfect for all my needs. I do have the Kindle App as well as various others but i would rather convert the kindle titles (via Calibre) to read in Stanza than use it. Stanza is very flexible in terms of font size, screen brightness, background etc. It also have a dictionary, highlighting and note taking function. You can search the text, bookmark pages and remembers where you left off reading as well. You can also tag and categorise your books within the app so for example the books i have scheduled for review are organised into folders my month.
    I’d be interested to know how you think it compares to the others you have tried 🙂

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

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    • Oh thanks for that one shelleyrae, I had not heard of it. Off to download it and try it……

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      • Downloaded Stanza for the iPad but couldn’t get it to work – got an exception error every time and could not use any functions. Looking at some reviews and online comment it seems the app has not been updated for iOS5 which my iPad is running. I may give it another go later on when it has been updated but I would be wary of using an app that takes so long to be updated after a major upgrade…I assume that means people relying on this app for their reading couldn’t do any reading on their device if they’ve upgraded to the new iOS.

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      • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

        That’s a shame. Hopefully it will be updated soon and you can give it a try.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    bernadetteinoz says: ” I find this kind of stuff inane and believe it is possibly an indicator of the imminent demise of our civilisation “.
    .
    Well I have to agree with you about that, but blogging is similar isn’t it. Instead of meeting with friends to discuss something, we simple put up a blog? Same thing, it’s all “socializing” which I think IS one of the major downfalls of the world. Someday when all the internet is gone, because of global conflict, all the people who never did anything but use the internet for all their socialization will just become “dust in the wind”.
    .
    As far as this post, I think the Kindle app is the best, but I would rate it a 3.5 out of 5, since I am never happy with anything. I would rate the KOBO as a -1.5
    .
    Good Day…

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    • And people sarcastically call me a little ray of sunshine! I do agree that blogging can be a very similar thing in some ways, though at least here and at the blogs I visit we are usually ‘discussing’ something tangible rather than showing off our latest award for finishing a book. While I do spend time with plenty of real world friends very few share my interest in reading the kind of fiction I like so if I want to talk about it it’s the internet or the voices in my head. At this tage the internet is slightly more sane

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