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There are more e-readers out there than you know. Not only are there devices of all kinds and configurations and price points, but there are apps a-plenty for these devices a-plenty. But everyone knows what you mean when you say e-reader. You mean the Big Three, the Top Dogs, the Big Kahunas. You mean the trinity of the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad.
Maybe we'll talk devices another day, but for now both of the iPad's competitors dish up rather full-featured iOS apps to challenge Apple's iBooks. The thinking goes, "Don't worry about profiting off the devices; aim to sell titles, wherever, however." So how do they stack up?
Amazon was Apple's first competitor to deliver an e-reader to the App Store with its Kindle app. From the start, Amazon's been pretty aggressive about being everywhere you want to read. With multiple portals including desktop readers and multiplatform and universal apps, the online retail giant knows how to move digital books.
We like this background; it makes the start of our reading experience pretty.
The app too, whether you're reading on the iPad's big screen or knocking out a chapter on your iPhone on the train in to work, works hard to present itself as an electric book. Note, not electronic book. The Kindle developers clearly believe in an interface that is as much like a page of paper with text on it as possible. When in reading mode, all controls and all tweaks are tucked away. Both apps provide landscape and portrait orientations as well as an onscreen lock to keep things as you prefer regardless of (and without needing to change) your device's settings.
Shouldn't this dictionary be here already?
Go landscape on the iPad, and two columns of text appear as if you opened a book. On the iPhone, such a layout is impractical, but we still found landscape best for long paragraphs. Tap the edges of the screen to advance or go back a page, or swipe your finger across it. Tap the center of the screen and you get your controls. A magnifying glass searches for words and phrases and can take you to Google or Wikipedia. The book icon gives you the table of contents, the multiple A's let you adjust fonts, brightness, and background color, and the arrow-circle syncs your account to other devices.
It's not a lot of customization, but that doesn't matter much to us. The brightness control is particularly welcome.
Tap and hold a word to look it up in the dictionary (but you'll need to download that) or leave a note or highlight a word or passage. A scrubber across the bottom moves you through the text quickly and a plus sign in the upper corner lets you bookmark a page.
It even tells you when you last synced.
Like the Kindle, the Nook, in free versions for both iPhone and iPad, is slightly hobbled by forcing readers out of the app to purchase books. Also like Amazon, buying books at the Barnes & Noble website pushed them to our device. This proved problematic for the Nook app as it frequently crashed before it could download and open our copy of Doctor Zhivago. We had to kill the app and restart it to get our book to load properly. We had the same problem on our iPad, which points to a software issue.
This happened far too often.
In landscape, the Nook library shows your titles as icons or lists. In list mode, a charming two pane structure appears, giving a synopsis of the book and quick access to its table of contents, bookmarks and notes, as well as options to archive the book or remove it from the iPad. This synopsis view is trickier to access on the iPhone’s smaller screen (a very thin "i" icon, which can easily be missed).
We love this informative library view.
The Nook apps offer the same sort of controls as the Kindle (and most other e-readers). Tap the page edge to go forward or back, or swipe across the page to do the same. Tapping the center of the page brings up the controls, and the Nook app goes the Kindle one better. Whereas Amazon's reader gives you black text on white, white text on black, or black text on sepia, the Nook gives you five predefined page/text color themes plus the option to make your own custom themes. There's also an interesting setting turned off by default which presents the book the way the publisher intended it to be viewed. You can also adjust the margins and change fonts. It's certainly customizable.
Now that's what we call customization. (Even if this particular one is ugly.)
Reading on the Nook app is rather pleasant, especially if you prefer a customized lilac background with dark green text. But there is a major weakness. While Kindle may often be obtrusive in its syncing, we never had any issues with it. We tried several times to get our Nook apps to sync last page read between our iPhone and iPad but never had any luck. We could finally get bookmarks to sync, but that seemed a tedious process, to bookmark our last place on our iPhone, go back to our library, press the sync button, then open the app on our iPad, press the sync button from the library, then go to the book's navigation system to get to our bookmarks.
Syncing shouldn't be so labor intensive.
Supposedly there's also a desktop version of the Nook, but we were never able to get it to load or even mount. Barnes & Noble have some improvements to make.
Let us just say that until iBooks came along, we didn't think anyone could beat the free Stanza app. Granted, we only had one iOS device at the time, but Stanza had the ability to read so many e-book formats, had enough customizability to turn the Nook inside out, could download books from tons of sources, and we could add whatever books we wanted. This last part was key. The Kindle's limited palate of readable formats (no EPUB? Really?) and no easy way to add books except from Amazon itself was a problem. And Barnes & Noble’s early apps were even more problematic.
Want to test your e-Reader? Give it a big, big Russian novel.
But with two devices, we quickly saw the need for syncing. Stanza doesn't offer it, and with eons between software updates, we fear Amazon's purchase of Lexcycle has rendered it abandonware.
Which is not to say we moved to iBooks like spurned lovers. We assumed that like the MP3 player early days, Apple had waited to deliver a quality product like the iPod. iBooks was pretty, it was as functional as the other two, even if its formats are limited to EPUB and PDF, and it synced our books between devices, keeping us from wasting time searching for our place. Turn your iPad to landscape, get a two-page spread. Tap the page margins to go forward or back, swipe pages likewise, and tap the center of a page to get the controls. Unlike the other two apps, with iBooks, you have to tap the center again to make them go invisible.
The controls aren't as grand as Tolstoy is.
As far as customizability goes, iBooks is a bit thin. There are multiple font options and sizes, but you get sepia or you get stark black and white. There's not even a white text on black background for reading in a dark room or on a plane (not unless you alter the iOS device’s settings outside iBooks). Your best bet in that regard is the onscreen brightness slider that can either blaze your iOS device's screen like a beacon or dim it to near illegibility.
Now that's a robust dictionary, and we also like seeing how many pages are left in the chapter.
A small piece missing from the other apps is an indicator, visible with the screen controls, of how many pages are left in the particular chapter you're reading. That's not such a big deal unless you find yourself reading in quick bursts. Knowing you have only six pages left in a chapter can spur you on. In paper books, we find ourselves flipping through to chapter ends and putting our fingers in them to pace ourselves. It's a nice touch, if a small one.
And until just recently, there was, inexplicably, only one way to buy new books for iBooks. On your device. Somehow left out of iTunes updates was the ability to go the bookstore. iTunes sold apps, yes. Music, yes. Movies, yes. But somehow books were left in the dust. Not so anymore, though iTunes and Apple have yet to do anything about reading your iBookstore purchases on a computer, for which we can't personally see the demand. With the advent of iCloud, Apple has given us all a little taste of the goodness by letting you select the syncing option that automatically adds to your iOS device any new thing you download from the iTunes Store. This means, finding a book is as easy as firing up iTunes, and it's on your device before you even hit the train.
How does this differ from what the others offer? Well, frankly it doesn't. In fact, Apple's a little behind the curve on this one, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.
Each app has a general selection of navigation and search tools, each bookstore has fairly comparable prices and selection (and each vendor has shifting numbers of titles available with everyone wanting to claim Project Gutenberg-based public-domain books). Controls are similar across the board. The Kindle still refuses to recognize EPUB, which is the MP3 of digital reading, meaning you’ll need third-party solutions to make that happen. The Nook can read more formats than either of the other two, but every syncing aspect is buggy and difficult to get to work. iBooks has a limited format selection as well, but synced beautifully.
The final answer seems to come down to your library. If you have a pile of EPUBs sitting on your hard drive, unless you want to convert every time, the Kindle’s not for you. But if you own a Kindle device and/or have bought tons of Kindle books from Amazon, clearly the other apps aren’t going to be of much use. And while it isn’t as customizable as the others, we find reading in iBooks just a much more pleasant experience, partly due to the Apple “it just works” philosophy and partly due to the ease of going to the store within the app.