And now it’s time to review an e-book app that does not have “Reader” in the name. Time to look at the big kahuna of iPad e-book readers, the one that was supposed to change the publishing industry forever: iBooks.
There’s quite a lot to like in this free iPad e-reader, and only a few minor niggles. Given that it uses EPUB and is quite easy to load with content, I can use it as a replacement for Stanza on the big machine. In fact, I would say it’s as good as or even better than Stanza in a number of ways, with only a couple of relative drawbacks.
What are they? Well, let’s get to it.
In the above picture, I’ve set the three versions of the first page of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Conflict of Honors next to each other, so you can see their relative sizes. Whereas Stanza on my iPod Touch only holds a paragraph or so (it would hold more without the chapter header taking up half the screen), iBooks on the iPad holds about 2/3 of the first page (and would probably hold the whole thing or more if I dropped the font size a notch or two).
In the two screenshots just above, I show a direct view of what the book looks like when viewed in portrait and landscape at the same font size. (Note that the lines are not fully-justified. That’s my own doing; the e-book as downloaded from Baen Webscriptions would almost certainly have full justification in iBooks. More on that below.)
In almost all respects, iBooks is as readable as ink on paper. It offers a choice between five fonts: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. Of these, the most readable is the default font, Palatino, and the one I used for all the screenshots. There are ten different font sizes, adjustable from the font control dialogue. I find the 4th and 5th sizes are probably the ones I prefer.
Unlike many other readers’, iBooks’s menu bars are not distracting—they don’t get in the way of the text. You see them in all my screenshots, but due to their understated brown color and separation from the text, you’ll barely notice they’re there if you’re reading. (They can be summoned or dismissed by tapping the middle of the screen.)
As you can see, the text is presented just as nicely as in the Kindle Reader, more or less, except for the annoying problem of the “rivers”, or wide gaps between words that align to create the appearance of streams of white space amid the text.
You can see it most clearly in the last third of the second-last paragraph of the image at right, if you click on the thumbnail to zoom in, but it’s present all through texts that have full justification turned on. (It’s even worse in landscape mode, with the even shorter lines.)
This is caused by a combination of the full justification of the page, so that lines of varying length all start and end at the same place, and iBooks’s complete lack of hyphenation.
As you can see, when a line ends in an excessively long word, like “Grandfathers,” that almost but not quite fits, the entire word has to be moved to the next line, making that line that much shorter—so the space between each word has to be stretched out further.
In normal books, the effect is reduced considerably through hyphenation—the word would be broken up into “Grand-“ and “fathers” and split across two lines, making the first line longer and leaving much less wasted space. Since iBooks lacks support for hyphenation, it justifies as best it can, with much vacant space, and I find the effect rather distracting.
Why on earth couldn’t Apple build hyphenation into iBooks? It’s not as if it would be any harder than spell-checking a document—and heck, they have to reflow the entire book any time the font size or orientation changes anyway. Surely it wouldn’t be so hard to build in a hyphenation dictionary so that long line-ending words could be split up at the same time?
I believe the theory behind full justification is that it allows readers to scan the page more smoothly because their eyes always know to start and stop at the same place. But on the other hand, I’ve read uneven lines for years thanks to newsgroup, forum, blog, and other postings on the Internet, and if my eyes do have to be “distracted” I’d prefer it to be only once per line—at the end—rather than between every word.
There is no configuration option in iBooks to turn full justification off—but fortunately, that factor can be overridden in the compilation of the EPUB file itself. So I used Calibre to reconvert all my (unencrypted) e-books en masse to remove that unsightly full justification, and ended up much happier. (A complete explanation of how to do that can be found in this post.)
iBooks comes with a free e-book bundled into it—Winnie the Pooh, with the classic illustrations. I have to admit, they picked a great choice for a book to show off iBooks. Aside from being considered a childhood classic—something perfectly safe to let the kids read, or read to them, or relive your own childhood with—it has some terrific art and illustrations, and looks great on the iPad screen.
I wonder if anyone will bother to track how sales of the paper version do over the next few months? It would be interesting to know what effect being an iPad freebie has.
I suppose I shouldn’t forget to mention the silly page-edge borders around the edge of the screen, and the page-turning animation—designed to make it look like you’re reading a “real” book. It’s ridiculous, but on the other hand it doesn’t slow down the reading experience or get in the way in any other respect.
They put a lot of effort into it, too. If you run your finger slowly from the edge of the screen to the center, you can actually peel back the edge of the page, revealing the words from the next facing page in landscape or the “bleeding through” of words from the other side of the blank page in portrait. It’s not just a simple rote animation like in Classics, but actually rendered anew each time you twiddle with it.
It seems completely wrong-headed to me to put all that time and effort into duplicating a physical book—the Kindle Reader doesn’t bother, and is no less readable for it—but on the other hand I suppose the iPad has the CPU power to spare for silly animations and borders. As long as it doesn’t get in the way or distract from the words on the page—and I find it doesn’t—I won’t object too strenuously.
Ease of Use
How easy is iBooks to use? Well, reading EPUB books has never been easier. (It has been equally easy, however, thanks to Stanza.) As with the Kindle Reader app, page navigation is accomplished either by tapping at the desired edge of the screen, or by swiping a finger or thumb anywhere on the screen in the direction you want the pages to turn.
It’s a funny thing: on the iPod Touch, I always preferred tap navigation to turn pages, to the point where I changed eReader’s default from swipe to turn, tap for menu to tap to turn, swipe for menu. But on the iPad, it just feels natural when holding the book to use my thumb to rub the screen leftward—even if it’s my left thumb.
I didn’t expect to find the landscape, facing-page view compelling before I started using iBooks. I thought it might be a cute novelty, but as the first photo in this article shows, the iPad’s screen is about the size of a trade paperback book’s, and I never had any trouble reading from those.
But to my surprise, I find that reading iBooks in landscape form feels natural. I can hold the iPad about the same way I would hold an open hardcover book, albeit a much thinner one, and read from top to bottom to top to bottom of the facing pages pretty easily. I know I just got finished decrying Apple putting all that effort into imitating a paper book…but I was talking about the unnecessary ornamentation. In this case, the facing-page form factor just works for reading.
The menu bars are roughly the same in either orientation. At the upper left are a button to jump back to the library or the current book’s table of contents. At the right are controls for brightness (which, thanks to Apple’s API control, only iBooks is allowed to have—nyah nyah, Kindle Reader), font, and word search.
At the bottom of the screen is a slider showing where in the book you are, with the option to move forward or backward by moving the slider in its track. (It also tells how many pages are left in the current chapter—another nice touch.) That’s it.
One common complaint which I suppose I should at least address is that iBooks doesn’t support
bookmarking or notetaking. It’s a fair complaint, and if those things are important to you then you should keep it in mind. It’s not much of an issue for me—I don’t tend to make notes in books, or use bookmarks (since iBooks remembers my place in a given book, after all), but your mileage may vary.
Update: I’ve since been informed that you can place a bookmark by selecting a word then clicking “Bookmark” from the context menu. I wasn’t aware of that, and find it a bit of completely unintuitive bad design—if I couldn’t figure it out, how’s the average person going to know that’s how you bookmark?—but at least it’s there.
The app is extremely simple. There’s no in-app settings dialogue, and the only iBooks setting found under the iPad’s “Settings” menu is an option to make tapping the left margin turn the page forward instead of backward. But then, if there’s one thing Apple has always understood, it’s the value of simplicity.
Selecting which book you want to read is done from either a bookshelf display, similar to the one used in Classics, or a more conventional list of books that can be sorted by author, title, category, or “bookshelf order.”
The bookshelf display…well, it looks nice, to scroll down and see all those colorful book covers revealed before your eyes. It’s sort of the e-book-reader equivalent of iTunes’s “Cover Flow”. (Of course, if you think about it, you’ll soon realize if you have any number of books on your shelf that this faux wooden bookcase is 1) used rather inefficiently—you could fit a lot more books on it if you didn’t face them out but shelved them in the usual way, and 2) impossibly tall.)
But the order of the books leaves something to be desired. The books are displayed in reverse order of addition to the device—most recently added is at the upper left, and the first books added are way down at the bottom.
There does not appear to be any way to change this, to sort the bookshelf by title, author, or category the way the conventional list display (accessed by tapping the icon with the three horizontal rows at the upper right of the screen) can. This leaves it of only limited usefulness when actually trying to find any particular title. And it offends my librarianistic sense of proprieties: if you’re going to shelve books, they should be shelved in a sensible order, darnit!
The list screen is more rational in terms of being able to find any given book. Apart from being sortable by author, title, or category, it also has an iTunes-style search box at the top, through which any book can be found just by entering a few letters from author or title. Strangely absent, however, is the alphabetical scrollbar which the iPhone music interface has, that lets you jump to entries beginning with a given letter. I guess with a bigger screen it’s not expected to be a hardship to scroll.
There is also an “Edit” button on both shelf and list views, that allows deletion of any particular book in the usual “red minus sign” fashion.
One of the areas where iBooks really shines over Stanza is in how easy it is to add your own e-books. And needless to say, I have plenty of them—mostly unencrypted titles purchased from Baen’s Webscriptions, downloaded from its Free Library, or pulled from the Baen CDs on The Fifth Imperium.
Most of the Baen CD titles had to be converted from Mobi or LIT format with Calibre, since Baen was not using EPUB yet when they were released, but the conversions worked fine for the most part. And anyway, even the ones that were already EPUBs had to be reconverted to get rid of the full justification.
After that, I just did a file-find for EPUB files in my Calibre directory, then dragged and dropped the search results onto iTunes. It copied them into the iTunes media directory and filed them as “books”. Then in the “Books” tab of my iPad’s sync settings in iTunes, I checked “Sync Books,” put the radio button next to “All books,” and synced. It was as simple as that. I was almost disappointed that it wasn’t harder.
By comparison, with Stanza I have to run either Stanza’s own Bonjour desktop conduit or Calibre in Stanza server mode. I have to download one book at a time, because if I try to download my entire directory of 400+ e-books at once, it would crash the program. As a result, I can’t load my whole library onto my iPod Touch, and have to settle for keeping it in Dropbox where I can at least access it from anywhere I have wifi.
But with iBooks on the iPad, it’s just a matter of dropping, syncing, and I’m there. Of course, the blame for Stanza having to sync by such a roundabout method can ultimately be placed on Apple, for disallowing file transfers via USB until this point. It still doesn’t make it any easier to load my whole library on board, however.
But about the only ways that Stanza is better than iBooks also have to do with adding content. For one thing, Stanza has access to a number of e-book catalogs, not just one: Feedbooks, Project Gutenberg, Munsey’s, Smashwords, and so on. This includes a lot of public-domain titles. (iBooks has a number of public-domain titles, but only some of them are actually free.)
Also, Stanza licensed the eReader e-book format, whereas iBooks only reads ePub—but this doesn’t do iPad owners a lot of good regardless, given that neither Stanza nor the official eReader is getting a full-resolution iPad version.
But back to iBooks. As for adding e-books from the store, if you tap on the “Store” button in the upper left corner of the bookshelf or list view, the shelf swivels around like the entrance to a secret passage in a mansion (irresistibly reminding me of the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the “Bebe’s Kids” video game)—and then the metaphor breaks, since instead of the back of a wood bookshelf, you get the brushed metal interface of the iTunes store, in an e-book variant. (Who would keep one of those in his mansion?)
You can search the store the same way as the iTunes music or app stores from iTunes; buying and downloading an e-book will be just as easy. If Apple is known for anything, it is usually consistency in its user interfaces. But I have not actually bought or downloaded any iBooks e-books, and I doubt I ever will.
At present, the only place to read DRM-locked iBooks is on the iPad. Of course, Jobs said that an iBooks app for the iPhone and iPod Touch would be coming with iPhone OS 4.0, but my iPod Touch is of the first generation and won’t get 4.0—which means it probably won’t get iBooks then, either. (From my experiences trying to find software for OS 10.2.5 for my old Wallstreet Powerbook which won’t run anything newer, I can safely say that Apple is not known for its support for legacy hardware.)
Not only does Amazon have a much better e-book selection overall and roughly equivalent prices on what it does have, I can read Amazon e-books on the iPad, the iPod Touch, and the PC desktop right now. Plus, if it should ever become legal to remove the DRM from my e-books so I can read them on even more devices, I know that the tools already exist for doing so to most Kindle books—but not to iBooks yet.
But just because I don’t plan to buy Apple’s locked-down titles does not mean I don’t find iBooks useful. As the best (indeed, just about the only full-resolution) EPUB reader for the iPad, and currently holding my complete Calibre library of over 400 mostly Baen e-books, iBooks is going to be how I do much of my reading from here on out.
In fact, I would say that—in spite of its flaws—it’s completely justifiable to consider iBooks one of the main reasons for purchasing an iPad at all. It’s just that good.