For my first major iOS app review in years, I’ve been looking into a pair of e-book apps by developer Appstafarian. First of all, I’ve heard good things about the Marvin EPUB reader. Juli Monroe reviewed it for the iPad, discussed how it works with Calibre, and looked at the iPhone version over the last few years.
However, I never had the chance to take a look at it—it came out after iOS 6 launched, so it was never compatible with my first-generation iPad. Since I now have an iPad Mini 2, I decided to remedy that.
But did you know that Marvin also has a sister? (Or cousin, or wife, or something. It’s not a perfect metaphor.) Appstafarian makes a another EPUB app called Gerty, which is very similar to Marvin except for a couple of interesting differences. But I’ll look at Marvin first.
With a name like Marvin, I have to admit that my first thought was to wonder if the developer only made it for iOS because he was paranoid about Android. But all joking aside, just a few minutes of use convinced me that I’d found a suitable replacement for the long-departed Stanza e-reader that used to be my go-to iOS e-book app. Some of the features that most impressed me most about Stanza, Marvin takes and goes one better.
For starters, Marvin offers a nice, clean, simple reading interface. A wide variety of fonts are available, both serif and sans serif, including the Open Dyslexic font that Amazon only recently added to the Kindle. There are formatting options for adjusting font size, margin width, line spacing, depth of paragraph indent, paragraph spacing, full or left justification, and even enabling or disabling hyphenation. There’s also a “Switch to publisher’s formatting” option that reverts the book back to how it was originally formatted.
There are three color themes available—normal, night, and “other”—and these themes can be customized by setting the foreground color and the background color or pattern of your choice. If you want burgundy foreground text on an electric blue background, you just have to scroll the text color and background color/texture listing up until you find what you want and tap on it.
My one complaint about the color selection screen is that the basic simple options, such as “black” and “white,” are a screen and a half of scrolling down, below all the different shades of grey. I’d rather have black and white right at the top, but that’s just me.
The reading process is simple. Just as with the Kindle, you tap on the right side of the screen to page forward, or on the left to page back. (Though you can change that under the “Gestures” controls if you want.) Tapping in the middle brings up the top and bottom status bars. By default, you only get one column of text in either portrait or landscape, but there’s a configuration option to change it to two columns in landscape, or even two columns in portrait and landscape. (You have to rotate the screen before the changes take effect.)
Page turns are swift and responsive, the text is clear and easy to read, and the myriad of font and formatting options means you can make the book look pretty much however you want it to. It also retained the blank lines separating sections, which I noted Moon+ on Android didn’t when I tried it. You don’t get the skeuomorphic page-turn effect of iBooks, but then you don’t get that with the Kindle or most other e-reading applications either—and some people don’t like it from iBooks.
Even if that were as far as it went, Marvin would still be a useful EPUB e-book app—plain, straightforward, and self-contained, not requiring you to upload books into the cloud and re-download them to read them the way Google Books does, and not full of fancy features you may not want or need like iBooks. But there were a couple of other features that did impress me.
First of all, there’s Marvin’s “Deep Reading” mode. Activated by tapping on a pair of eyeglasses in the top status bar, Deep Reading is a sort of automatic concordance program—it quickly catalogs all the character names and other important words that appear in a book, and lists them by order of appearance, importance, or alphabetically. It takes about a minute or so to process a given novel.
Deep Reading could be very useful when reading a book with so many character names that it’s hard to keep them all straight in your head. If you’re wondering, “Wait, who was that person?” you can pull up Deep Reading and get a list of every place his or her name has been mentioned so far. I’ve read a number of books where I’ve had that problem, especially with regard to foreign or alien-sounding names, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how Marvin could make reading such books easier.
There are also Deep Reading tabs where you can look up and import Wikipedia and other articles about the book or its author, and where you can build a summary on selected names—Marvin excerpts just the paragraphs in which that name is mentioned and incorporates them into a separate e-book file. This could make a handy reference for obscure characters. For that matter, it could be an excellent way of making study guides for subjects in non-fiction books.
Overall, it may not be quite as useful as a manually-compiled Cliff’s Notes on a given book, but it’s a lot more nuanced and flexible than just doing a text search. It’s basically an index of text searches for every major character or concept, accessible with just a tap or two.
The other feature is, if anything, even more impressive. I keep my Calibre library in Dropbox, and every so often use Calibre2OPDS to update an OPDS catalog file for remote access. I originally used that format with Stanza, though Stanza is no longer around anymore.
Marvin also offers the ability to read an OPDS catalog, though I haven’t been able to get it to work as yet—apparently it uses a different OPDS format than the XML files Calibre2OPDS makes. But that’s all right, because it offers alternatives. You can download books from Project Gutenberg or Mobileread, or link up directly to Calibre and pull books down that way, or even pull them from your iCloud account.
But the most useful option for me is that it can link to the Dropbox app on your device, then list all the EPUBs you’re keeping in Dropbox for you to download. It does it pretty quickly, too—it found the 1,375 e-books I have in my Dropbox over the course of about a minute or so. Then I could sort or search them however I wanted. It was simple enough to do that I might not even need to keep using OPDS to download my books anymore.
And all of these features are available in the free version of Marvin, as far as I can tell. The only difference between the free and paid versions are that the free version only lets you keep a library of one downloaded e-book at a time, while the one that costs $3.99 will let you load as many as you want.
This seems like a reasonable price to me, and a reasonable division of features—if you’re the sort of person who only reads one e-book at a time, the free version might be just fine for you, and it won’t bombard you with advertisements like some free e-readers. But $3.99 isn’t bad at all for such a good application. (You can also add on an app theme pack for $4.99, but this seems less necessary to me.)
We apparently haven’t ever covered the other Appstafarian e-reader yet, which is a little surprising. Gerty resembles a simplified version of Marvin, with a number of similar features—in fact, I suspect it uses a lot of the same code base. But there are some important key differences that might make it a more useful reader for people with different needs than Marvin users.
Unlike Marvin, Gerty works on a scrolling principle. Instead of tapping left or right to turn a page, you slide the screen up or down by swiping your finger—just like scrolling on a web page. Tapping anywhere on the screen brings up the top and bottom status bars. Since you’re scrolling, you don’t have the ability to split the screen into separate columns either. I personally prefer the pagination method, but I can still appreciate that Gerty’s scrolling is smooth and simple. And there are people who would rather have a scrolling e-reader app.
Gerty doesn’t have as many customization options as Marvin. You can select the font, make the font bigger or smaller, switch between narrow or wide margins and vertical line spacing, and change the orientation lock settings (lock to portrait, lock to landscape, don’t lock) and that’s pretty much it. You also don’t get as many fonts to choose from as Marvin, and Open Dyslexic isn’t among them. (Though, weirdly enough, the info page on Appstafarian’s web site claims it is.) There are only six preset color themes, which you can’t customize beyond choosing the one you want.
The text still looks just as crisp and clear as in Marvin. In fact, it looks basically exactly the same as Marvin when you’re reading it, which is why I’m not bothering to throw in another screenshot here.
One of the features that you have to pay to add is auto-scrolling. Once you’ve added it, you can set the scroll rate and then the text will slide up the page at a steady rate of speed, teleprompter-style, without you doing anything. This could be useful for reading while your hands are busy with other things, like exercising or eating messy food.
Book Journaling and Other Features
Gerty doesn’t feature the “Deep Reading” mode of its sibling Marvin, but it has its own features that Marvin doesn’t. In particular, it has a private blog or journal feature built in, where you can note down thoughts on the book as you’re reading it, even including the ability to snap photos with the device camera to attach to it, and to attach a map showing exactly where you are at the time. You can export your entries into an EPUB, or share entries via iOS’s share-to-other-apps menu.
But Gerty isn’t just for reading e-books. It also allows you to keep track of your paper books, and write journal entries to associate with them. It’ll even scan the book’s barcode via your device’s camera and look up the author and title for you, if it can. It’s a clever idea for people who like to read a lot and share their feelings on what they read, and it might also be useful for taking notes on e-textbooks for class. I don’t think I’d be inclined to get much use out of it myself, though. It will also keep track of statistics on how much and how often you read.
Like Marvin, Gerty can read your Dropbox account so you can download e-books from it, and does so just as quickly as Marvin. It also has the option to read from your Google Drive account. However, it doesn’t seem to read directly from Calibre, OPDS, or iCloud.
Like Marvin, Gerty costs only $3.99 to unlock all its premium features. That’s not a bad price to pay for a full-featured e-book app, even one I don’t expect to use all that often. I found it a little odd that Marvin’s paid version is a separate app, whereas Gerty’s premium features are unlocked via an in-app purchase. But I suppose the way the premium features are set up makes in-app purchase work better for Gerty.
I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of the features that are available in both Marvin and Gerty, but I can say this for sure—they’re both going to be permanent fixtures on my iPad, and very possibly Marvin is going to supplant iBooks as the way I read all the DRM-free EPUBs in my Calibre library, at least when I’m reading from my iPad rather than one of my Android devices.
I can’t see getting into book journaling a la Gerty, but I could see how frequent journal-writers and note-takers could get a lot of use out of it. Whichever one better suits your style of reading, they’re both great little e-reader apps, and both are well worth the $3.99 price.