Despite numerous attempts, I never thought the iPhone was well suited as an eBook reader (see the Summer, 2009 issue of iPhone Life: iphonelife.com/issues/Summer09/eBooksOniPhone). Despite having a number of apps available for the purpose, there were too many problems associated with the small display. I stuck with my Amazon Kindle, which provided a fantastic reading experience and was backed by Amazon's vast selection of eBooks. I thought I'd be perfectly happy with it for a long time, but along came the iPad and everything changed.
The Kindle, which had been the center of my reading universe, could not compete with the iPad's whopping 10-inch color screen. Reading eBooks was a primary selling point for me, and the iPad's screen not only displays a full page of text, it's great for viewing illustrations. Of course, the iPad needs an app to support eBook reading, and Apple provided that in the form of iBooks (free, app2.me/2403).
It's obvious that Apple put a lot of thought into iBooks. The main interface simulates a bookshelf—a fantastic metaphor! As you download books, full-color thumbnails of their covers appear on this shelf. When you are ready to read, simply tap the desired book cover and it opens to the title page, or if you've been reading the book, to the last page you read.
I really loved the graphics and animations in iBooks. The app simulates the spine and feathered pages on the edges of a book, and the animation of the pages turning looks like the real thing. It's great, especially for the people who avoid eBooks because "they just don't look like the real thing."
iBooks gives you full access to Apple's new iBookstore, which is more limited than Amazon.com, but growing. The iBookstore interface does a great job of making some of the most popular and current books readily available. Unfortunately, the selection is disappointingly limited; there are simply far too many holes beneath that shiny new store veneer.
eBook readers for the iPad
Fortunately, Apple's eBook reader/bookstore is hardly the only game in town. In addition to iBooks, three other major booksellers offer eBook reader apps that give you full access to their online stores, and a fourth app lets you download books from various partner stores.
Kindle (free, app2.me/218, eBooks from Amazon.com),
NOOK (free, app2.me/2542, eBooks from Barnes and Noble),
eBooks by Kobo/Borders free, app2.me/2563, eBooks from Borders
Stanza free, app2.me/218, eBooks from online partners.
Let's take a look at how these apps compare.
The library interfaces of all the apps have a similar feel to them and make your browsing experience easy and comfortable.
The library view on the Kindle app and NOOK use a similar motif of thumbnail book covers displayed in a grid over a simple background. In the Kindle app, they float over the familiar muted image of a boy reading while sitting under the Tree of Knowledge. NOOK's library is displayed over a plain white background. The background cannot be customized on either app, which is a shame. The ability to change the background color or image would really help personalize the experience.
The Kobo/Borders app's tabbed interface differentiates it from the other apps in this review. The "I'm Reading" tab displays the eBooks you are currently reading. The Library and Store tabs are self explanatory. I was really impressed by the "I'm Reading" display, which allows you to jump between all of the books you are currently reading without hunting through your entire library. I also liked Kobo's library view, which displays your eBook titles as book covers sitting on bookcase shelves. The default library view is a modern looking, white bookcase, but you can change it to six other styles, including a wood bookcase similar to the iBooks' library view.
Stanza library view was rather basic; nothing more than a simple list of book titles with cover icons. It fills the available space and lets you access the books in your library, but makes no real effort to utilize the increased size and resolution of the screen. Hopefully, Lexcycle will improve this in the next version.
Tap any book cover thumbnail from any of the apps and the eBook will open to the title page, or if you've been reading the book, to the last page you read. Although all of these eBook apps offer a fantastic reading experience, none offer the level of animation when opening and closing books like iBooks. However, the NOOK and the Kobo app both offer a preview popup window. Tap and hold on the thumbnail icon to open the popup, which includes a full synopsis of the book, along with appropriate links to the bookstore for more information. This is extremely useful for browsing.
None of the other eBook readers simulate a realistic page look like iBooks does (see graphics left). However, they do allow you to customize the page in a variety of ways. For example, all allow you to increase or decrease the font size and all have night viewing options that switch the background color to black and the text to white.
The most customizable apps were Stanza and the NOOK. Both offer themes that let you customize the look of the page, including background and text colors. Stanza even allows users to add their own background images on each page. Finally, Stanza offers a fantastic option that allows you to share the books you are reading via e-mail and social networks. Given the emphasis these days on social networking, I was surprised not to find a similar sharing option in more of the readers.
Even if it's the most feature-rich, easy-to-use eBook reader in the world, it won't be of much use if there is nothing to read. With the exception of Stanza, which I'll discuss later, each of these apps is connected to its own well-stocked eBook store. However, they approach accessing them in two different ways.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble
By far, Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer the best selection of eBooks. Unfortunately, neither Kindle nor NOOK let you connect to dedicated stores from within the apps. Instead, they simply displayed links to their websites. Tap on the links and you are taken to the sites in Safari. Amazon's Kindle app has a link to the Kindle store at the top of the app's main page. The link in NOOK takes you to the eBook page on the Barnes & Noble site. Although this provides access to the eBooks, it's not as convenient as the in-app options found in the other eBook readers. Specifically, the sites are not optimized for use from the iPad. I rarely use these stores unless I am looking for a specific book. An iPad-optimized store is critical to the user experience.
iBookstore and Borders
Both iBooks and Kobo let you access their online stores from within the apps. Tap on the "Store" link at the top of the iBooks' library page or Kobo's main screen and you are taken to a screen optimized for the iPad. From this page, you can browse the new releases, Top 50 NY Times bestsellers, or just jump right into any category. Though Kobo's selection of books is still a distant runner-up to the other stores, I thought they did an incredible job of merging a very good selection of eBooks with an easy to navigate store screen.
Stanza's eBook stores
Stanza does not have its own bookstore. Instead, the app lets you access five online bookstores (including Fictionwise and BooksOnBoard) and nine free eBook sites (including the ever popular Project Gutenburg). With all these sources available, you're bound to find the book you are looking for on Stanza. Stanza's eBook search feature is really cool. Accessed from the upper-right corner of the screen, it lets you search all of the online stores at once. A single search will reveal matches across all fourteen stores.
Read virtually any eBook
There are a variety of eBook formats out there, and most eBook readers are tied to a specific format. Fortunately, the five apps mentioned in this article cover all the bases. With these free apps installed on your iPad you can download and read virtually any eBook available today. No single eBook reader can compare with the breadth, depth, and scope of the iPad eBook reading options available today.
Long before there were eBooks, publishers offered "books on tape" for those who would rather listen to a good book while they were commuting or for a variety of other reasons. This evolved into books on CD, and ultimately into the digital audiobooks we know today.
Fortunately for iOS users, there are a myriad of audiobook options available on iTunes. First, you can head over to the Audiobooks section and check out the vast array of stand-alone titles that can be downloaded straight to your iOS device. Prices generally range from a dollar or two all the way up to $20. You listen to these titles using the iPod player built into your device.
In addition, there are a number of apps that will give you instant access to other audiobook libraries. One of the most popular options is Audible (free, app2.me/2951), which lets you access the substantial library at Audible.com. Just download the app, sign up for a subscription, and you're ready to go. Using Audible requires a monthly or yearly subscription fee. Other options are available for your iOS device: Free Audiobooks ($1.99, app2.me/2952 ) and Audiobooks ($0.99, app2.me/2478; iPhone version: free, app2.me/2953) lets you access collections of nearly 3,000 copyright free classics.