Well, right now it’s snowing down below and the devil is skiing to work. I was convinced that there was no way a version of Fictionwise’s eReader would come out for iPad, now that Barnes & Noble was busy trying to push the Nook and its own tied-in eReader at all costs. In April, Fictionwise’s customer service outright said there were then “no plans to update the iPhone eReader app for iPad.”
But in the last couple of weeks, surprise surprise, out came a new iPad-compatible eReader. I’m still not entirely sure why. Are Barnes & Noble still committed to supporting Fictionwise’s platform for the iPhone, and an iPad-compatible version would also look good on iPhone 4? Did they get tired of people asking and complaining about it? As close-mouthed as B&N media relations is, we may well never know.
(And that’s not even the first time this has happened—after I was convinced that Amazon would never allow Stanza to come out with an iPad version, there it came in June! The demons must be having to contend with heavy blizzards.)
At any rate, it provides a perfect excuse for me to get around to taking a look at not only this new revision, but also at the new Barnes & Noble app at long last. Once again, there are two different applications of the same name, but pointed at different e-book stores from the same owner. How do they stack up?
Apples and Oranges
I had planned to review these two applications at the same time and compare them head to head, but looking again I realized it isn’t really possible to compare them apples-to-apples (or Apple to Apple, as the case may be) anymore. The original Barnes & Noble eReader was an exact clone of the Fictionwise app, created (as far as I know) by the same team of coders by removing a few options and reskinning it to look more like the Barnes & Noble website. In all but a few small particulars, they acted the same.
But the Barnes & Noble iPad app is something completely different. It might read Barnes & Noble e-books, but the user interface is completely new—closer to the way things are done on the Nook device itself, which suggests to me that it probably didn’t have any more to do with the original eReader or anyone who worked on it than the name.
It’s been redesigned from the ground up, and isn’t really an “eReader” app any more than the Kindle Reader is a Mobipocket app. Small wonder that the version for Android has shed the “eReader” moniker entirely, and is simply “Nook for Android”. I wouldn’t be surprised if a future revision of the B&N iPad eReader similarly renamed and rebranded it to “Nook for iPad”. (It would certainly help lessen confusion over compatibility between the two readers.)
On the other hand, the iPad version of Fictionwise’s eReader has hardly changed at all. But that may not be such a good thing.
Regardless, it’s not a simple matter of slapping a few paragraphs onto the end to say “the Barnes & Noble version is just like this except…” So I’m going to devote this review entirely to Fictionwise’s eReader, and cover Barnes & Noble’s later.
Fictionwise eReader for iPad, and the Size Change Conundrum
There was a hack I reported on a few months ago that would allow jailbroken iPads to scale up a number of iPhone apps to work in full iPad resolution without pixel doubling. It wouldn’t be the same as if they had been designed to work in that resolution—interface and design elements might be broken, or at least not look quite right—but it would use full-resolution iPad fonts and graphics.
This is fundamentally what the iPad version of eReader does to the iPhone version: simply changes it to use iPad scaling and font sizes. To be fair, this does work, to a certain extent. E-books look much better (with a few caveats that I’ll get to below) when they can be viewed in a font that is not all fuzzy and blurry from having pixels twice the size they were meant to.
The problem is that there’s more to redesigning an interface originally meant for a small screen to move it to a large screen than just doubling the size of everything.
When the iPad was in the process of being prepped for launch, tech blogs widely reported that Steve Jobs had axed a number of built-in iPhone apps from being converted over, such as the stock ticker, calculator, and clock, because Apple simply couldn’t figure out how to redesign their interfaces to look good blown up to iPad size.
We’re seeing a similar thing here. It doesn’t look like a lot of care or attention was paid to modernizing the eReader client. For all I know, it may not even have been done by the same people. (I certainly wouldn’t like to think that the people who wrote the original version were associated with this. As good as that eReader app is, I would think they’d do a more thorough job.)
Perhaps Barnes & Noble decided to go with their own in-house team rather than whatever coders Fictionwise used. Not being familiar with it, and being too lazy to bother to learn it (after all, it’s not like it’s something important, like the Nook), B&N just slapped the band-aid of resolution-change on it and sent it out into the world.
I do know that the Pendergrasts, back when they were allowed to talk to us, took considerable pride in their iPhone application, and it doesn’t seem likely they’d countenance something so slap-dash as this half-hearted adaptation if they still had any say over it. Chalk it up to another malign influence that Barnes & Noble is exercising over its once-independent subsidiary.
How Does it Look?
I’m not doing the usual “Readability/Ease of Use/Adding Content” sections with this review, because in a very real sense I’ve already done them. Go back and read my review of the iPhone eReader app. In terms of adaptation to the iPad, the screen size is the only thing that’s changed. Everything else is identical.
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like such a horrible thing. And as I’ve said before, it’s not really bad. Certainly as someone who started out reading e-books in eReader on a 160×160 pixel black-and-white LCD screen, this native iPad version represents a considerable improvement. I’m so glad to be able to read my eReader books in full resolution that a lot would be forgivable. But…well, let’s look at the screenshots.
On the left is the old iPhone version pixel-doubled to the iPad. On the right is the new iPad version, at the same (“Medium”) font size setting. (Click through to see in full iPad resolution.) You’ll notice that the iPad version shows a lot more text, and the text looks a lot less fuzzy, too.
But look at the user interface. It’s exactly the same. In fact, accounting for difference in screen height, I would be willing to say that the height of each status bar measures exactly the same amount of pixels. And, in fact, the icons you tap on are smaller too, because pixel for pixel they’re exactly the same icons. They haven’t been scaled up or changed at all.
Now, that pixel size worked well on the iPhone or iPod Touch, where on the smaller screen it was just the right size for tapping with your fat fingers—but on the bigger iPad screen, it’s going to be a bit harder to find in all that open space if you want to tap something quickly. (And if the higher-resolution version is likewise represented pixel for pixel when it goes to the iPhone 4, those icons are going to be almost impossible to find.)
But the lack of changes goes beyond just the interface. Here are four pictures, to prove a point. (I didn’t bother to upload the full size versions of these to Twitpic, so they won’t show up at full iPad resolution when you click on them. But there should be enough detail to get the idea.)
On the upper left is the iPhone eReader (actually the Barnes & Noble iPhone eReader, since the new version of the Fictionwise one replaced the iPhone version I kept on my iPad) at “Gigantic” font size, “Huge” margin size. On the upper right is the iPad version of eReader set to the largest font size.
Bottom left is the Barnes & Noble iPad eReader app and bottom right is the iPad Kindle Reader app set to their largest font sizes. Notice a difference there?
The “Gigantic” font size on the iPad Fictionwise eReader—the very largest font size it can display!—is smaller than the pixel-doubled version of the iPhone version’s “Medium” font shown further up the review, let alone the maximum font sizes for B&N eReader or Kindle Reader. But ou’ll notice it’s exactly the same size, pixel for pixel, as the non-doubled “Gigantic” size on the iPhone! Same with the margin widths.
I wouldn’t call the iPad font size “gigantic” or the margin “huge” by any stretch of the imagination. While they’re certainly quite readable for anyone with reasonably young eyes, someone with weaker eyes looking for a larger font size such as the B&N or Amazon apps offer is going to be out of luck. Lazy, lazy coders.
That’s the only really big annoyance. There are a couple of other complaints I’ve seen about the iPad eReader that, while annoying, aren’t really worth fussing over.
One is the fact that there is no two-column mode in landscape like in iBooks or the B&N eReader. While this is bothersome, especially when coupled with the narrow margins and small maximum font size, the Kindle Reader for iPad doesn’t do two-column landscape either and nobody seems upset over that.
The other nitpick has to do with the cover art, on books that have it. Yes, cover art on an eReader book is going to look lousy blown up to an iPad screen. To a certain extent, it looks pretty bad even on an iPhone screen. But that’s not the application’s fault specifically.
After all, what do you expect? The eReader (aka Peanut Reader) format hasn’t been updated in twelve years. It was originally meant for reading on 160×160 pixel monochrome LCD screens, on a device that broke files up into 64K chunks. Cover art still has a maximum size of 64K, and as seen at right is still often formatted so it looks good on a square screen (such as most Blackberries still have).
If you’re going to get upset about that, you’re about twelve years too late. It is for that reason that Fictionwise was planning to migrate to EPUB as its new eReader format…but then it got bought by Barnes & Noble, and that was that.
(The fuzzy iPhone-resolution eReader splash page on launch, though…yeah, I’ll give you that one. Lazy coders again.)
Not to look a gift horse entirely in the mouth, there are still plenty of things to like about this app—many of them the same things I liked about the iPhone version, since this essentially is the iPhone version writ large (literally). The ease of downloading your entire shelf at once from either eReader or Fictionwise, for instance, or downloading books from webservers by using ereader:// URIs in Mobile Safari. You can’t do those things in the Barnes & Noble app, no matter how much more polished and iPad-optimized it might be.
And I do have a fairly large eReader-format library that I’ve built up over those last twelve years. Until this update there was simply no way to read them at full resolution on the iPad without resorting to illegal methods (well, unless we count Stanza, but Stanza doesn’t have the handy library fetch and it doesn’t quite display eReader books as well as eReader).
Lazy they might have been, but at least they came out with an iPad version at all. If they never updated it again, and this was the final version of eReader forever, I’d still be grateful for at least that much.
Ticked with Fictionwise
Of course, downloading one’s entire shelf at once does lead to another irritation with Fictionwise, albeit one that’s not entirely their fault. In the process I discovered a number of books I had already ordered—among others, several of the Rachel Vincent series of which Shift is one book, and some Dirk Pitt novels—won’t download. And since I lost my iPod Touch that previously had my library on it, I find I’m stuck without access to these books.
Furthermore, the latest books in some of the series I’ve been following—the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn—are not available on Fictionwise or eReader, presumably (like the missing books I already bought) due to the Agency Pricing situation. I already bought the latest Mercy Thompson book from Amazon when I was reviewing the Kindle Reader apps, and now I may well do the same for the new Kitty.
I had been buying everything from Fictionwise due to not wanting to keep multiple e-book libraries, but now that they’re eliminating their discount program and rebates, and Amazon is coming out with reader apps for so many different platforms, it looks as though that’s the way I’m going to end up going next.
In the end, eReader is the app you need for reading eReader books on the iPad in its full resolution, and I am very glad I’m able to do that at last. However, there is still considerable room for improvement—and with Barnes & Noble pouring most of its effort into its Nook platform, it is anybody’s guess whether that improvement can actually happen.