Reading on the iPhone – Reading Apps Review

Disclaimer: This is an initial review after reading two books on the iPhone (Monstrumologist and Lair of the White Worm). Both were read on the Kindle for iPhone App. For the other apps my experience is limited to playing around with them and reading portions of books.

The reviews will be accompanied by two scores – a general reading score and a reading score relative to other iPhone Apps. At some later point will add video reviews since am trying to figure out how best to create App Review videos. 

Advantages and Disadvantages common to all iPhone Reading Apps

Shared iPhone App Disadvantages

  1. The screen of the iPhone is quite small. 
  2. Battery life does not compare with eInk based eReaders.  
  3. LCD screens cause a bit of eye strain whereas eInk screens do not.  
  4. There are a lot of distractions on the iPhone i.e. games, text messages, and more.  

Shared iPhone App Advantages 

  1. Color Screen.  
  2. Touch and basic multi-touch.  
  3. Excellent design of the iPhone which does impact the apps themselves.
  4. Most of all, the iPhone is with you all the time and small enough to fit in your pocket.

Review of Stanza for iPhone

Amazon actually bought Lexcycle, the company that makes Stanza, and it was a smart, smart move because Stanza is spectacular.

Stanza’s Strengths

Stanza’s 3 major strengths seem to be –  

  1. A Plethora of Options. Stanza lets you -

    Change the eBook Appearance
    Choose out of 9 Day Themes and 11 Night Themes.
    Pick a font type out of 24 fonts.
    Set font size using a sliding scale.
    Select Background color, Text color and Link color. There are hundreds of options.
    Set your own background image and set its opacity.

    Change the Layout of the eBook
    Choose Alignment, Hyphenation, Margin Sizes, Line Spacing, Paragraph Spacing, and Paragraph Indent.

    Customize a Bunch of Controls
    Lock Rotation of the iPhone.
    Disable Sleep Mode.
    Change the Page Turn Effect and Duration.
    Change what action leads to a page turn.
    Assign Actions to various touch gestures.

  2. Good Organization of Books and the Ability to add Folders – Stanza calls them Collections. It has different views of your books i.e. by title, by author, by subject, by latest reads, and of course you can create your own collections. You can even choose from a ton of icons and give each of your Collections a pretty little icon. 
  3. There’s a useful online catalog that lets you access multiple sources for ebooks -

    Munseys.
    Fictionwise.
    Random House Free Library.
    SmashWords.
    Feedbooks.
    Project Gutenberg.
    And More.

The downloading works smoothly for the most part.

There are also a lot of different, well thought out features that combine to make Stanza an excellent reading App –  

  1. Tapping on the screen brings up the menu and  shows you the chapter you’re in, the page of the chapter you’re in, and percentage of the book you’ve read.
  2. There’s a sliding location bar that lets you jump quickly to anywhere in the eBook.
  3. There are two arrows on either side of the location bar that let you go back if you jump ahead – You can do this multiple times.
  4. The Table of Contents shows the chapter you’re in. 
  5. There’s a quick menu with the option to quickly do things like access the Dictionary, change the Font Size, and go to Your Library.
  6. You can turn pages by either tapping the side of the screen or swiping your finger. The actions can be changed on the Settings Page. 
  7. A feature called Cover Flow which lets you flip through covers of books. Couldn’t figure out how to start it.

Stanza Weaknesses

  1. All the options are a bit overwhelming. It really is meant for tech savvy people who like to customize and tinker with their apps.  
  2. There is no Auto-Scroll function. 
  3. Having all these different sources for ebooks instead of one central store is confusing. Some of the eBook Stores are really slow. 
  4. The Search Function is not very good i.e. you have to navigate a few menus to ‘Find Next’.

 Stanza Review

The positives far outweight the negatives. Stanza sets a very high bar for Reading Apps and it got the highest review score.

Stanza Review Score: 7.5 stars out of 10.
Stanza Review Score relative to iPhone Reading Apps: 9 stars out of 10 for tech savvy people, 8 stars for people who are confused by too many options.

Review of Kindle for iPhone

Kindle for iPhone Strengths

Kindle for iPhone has 3 major strengths -

  1. Simplicity. In direct contrast to Stanza, Kindle for iPhone provides few settings and options and almost forces you to focus on reading books.  
  2. Kindle Store Books – The wide range, the low prices, and the ability to read books you’ve already purchased for your Kindle (if you have one).
  3. WhisperSync – The ability to synchronize your place in a book across all your reading devices (only Kindle, iPhone and iTouch at the moment).  

This overlay screen is almost the entirety of the Kindle for iPhone’s settings -

Simplicity is the Kindle for iPhone's hallmark

Simplicity is the Kindle for iPhone's hallmark

Kindle also has other good features -

  1. The Archive function (to download a book you’ve purchased in the past) is great – it’s easy to circle through your books and super simple to download the ones you want.  
  2. The Home Screen is again simple and easy to use and lets you order books by Recent, by Title or by Author.  
  3. There are 5 font sizes.
  4. There are 3 Text colors – white, black and sepia. White is actually a ‘Night Mode’.
  5. The Sepia Text Color setting is more of a theme and perhaps the most readable theme/page setting of all the iPhone eReaders. 
  6. You can tap or swipe to turn pages.
  7. Portrait and Landscape mode reading.
  8. Getting new books is through Amazon.com’s mobile site in Safari which is well designed.
  9. You can zoom into images (pinch the image).

Kindle for iPhone Weaknesses

Kindle for iPhone’s weaknesses stem from its focus on simplicity (and a few other sources) -

  1. There are relatively few customization options.
  2. There’s no AutoScrolling.  
  3. You cannot add notes and highlights.
  4. There’s no Search function.
  5. The Kindle Store is not integrated into the Kindle for iPhone App and you have to go to Safari to get ebooks.  
  6. There is no Help Document and instead the app sends you to a help page on amazon.com.
  7. There is no provision for things like Folders.

Kindle for iPhone Overall Review:

Kindle for iPhone brings the Kindle’s super simplistic design philosophy to the iPhone. The lack of search, auto-scrolling and highlighting prevent it from hitting the perfect balance between simplicity and essential functionality.

Kindle for iPhone Review Score: 7 stars out of 10.
Kindle for iPhone Review Score relative to iPhone Reading Apps: 7.5 stars out of 10, Higher if you like simplicity and just want to read.

Barnes & Noble eReader Review

B&N eReader’s Strengths 

The B&N eReader is built on eReader from eReader.com with minimal differences. It was the right thing to do because we already had a pretty good Reading App and B&N actually manage to improve it a bit.

In terms of design philosophy its closer to Stanza than Kindle – it does manage to not overwhelm you with settings (something Stanza is guilty of).

The top 4 strengths of the B&N eReader are -

  1. AutoScroll feature with a touch control to change the speed, start and stop it.  
  2. Great Annotations – includes bookmarks, highlighting and notes. The listing is rather pretty too.
  3. Categories and ability to add your own categories and arrange categories as you wish (Stanza always puts default stanza collections first).
  4. A ton of options for customization -

    8 Fonts.
    6 Font Sizes.
    8 Themes usable as Day Themes or Night Themes. You can also make Custom Themes yourself.
    Change Line Spacing, Margins, Justification.
    Lock Orientation.
    Choose the Page Turn Gesture.

It also is pretty and very well designed -

B&N eReader - Simple, Pretty, Well Designed

B&N eReader - Simple, Pretty, Well Designed

There are a lot of other good features -

  1. You can create your own themes. An impressive feature.
  2. There’s an in-built user guide for help with the app. 
  3. Great Search function – You can circle through the search results using a little tiny ‘Find Next’ control on the screen.
  4. Ability to highlight a word or phrase and then look it up in the dictionary, on Wikipedia or on Google.
  5. The B&N eReader uses touch very well.
  6. There’s a location slider that lets you slide to any page (yes, it has pages) and then use back and forward arrow buttons to circle through your location jumps.
  7. The Table of Contents lists the page at which every chapter starts.

As a pure application, the B&N eReader almost hits the perfect balance. There is unfortunately one flaw.

B&N eReader’s Weaknesses

The one weakness that spoils the beauty of the eReader app –  

  1. Books are ridiculously expensive. Lost Symbol was showing up for $30.    

A few other downsides -

  1. Page Numbers change with font size. Which sort of kills the whole concept of pages.
  2. There really aren’t that many negatives – this is just a very well done app (or to be more precise eReader was a very well done app and B&N carried that on).

B&N eReader Review

Barnes & Noble took an almost great app i.e. eReader and turned it into a great app by doing two big things -

  1. Replacing all the confusing ebook stores and download options with one central store. 
  2. Adding the option to search Google and search Wikipedia after selecting a text.

They then spoilt this beautiful app with their super expensive ebook prices. It really is a tragedy because its such a well designed product – the eBook store fails it terribly.

B&N eReader Review Score: 7.25 stars out of 10.
B&N eReader Review Score relative to iPhone Reading Apps: 8.5 stars out of 10.

This would be the best eReader if the ebooks were reasonably priced.

ShortCovers iPhone App Review

ShortCovers Strengths

ShortCovers has one really strong  feature i.e.

  1. ShortCovers is the only app that has its own Store and also has the Store built into its App. This is enhanced by having excellent Discoverability -

    Browse lets you look through the different sections of the Store from the App itself. You can dig into any section or sub-section and see the Popular Books, the Bestsellers, and New Releases.

    Discover lets you jump into a bunch of bestseller lists, free books sections, featured titles, bargains and more. You can filter results to see only paid books or only free books. There’s even a Book Covers Mode for the Search Results. 

There are also a few other good features – 

  1. There are a decent number of settings – Night Reading, Rotation Lock, 8 Colors/Themes to choose from, 5 Font Sizes, 6 Fonts, Linespacing and Justification settings. 
  2. There are good sharing features and you can email a book recommendation to friends or tweet what book you’re reading.
  3. There’s a location slider to jump anywhere in the book and back and front buttons to circle between jump locations.
  4. There are book page numbers. However, they change based on Font size and that reduces their benefit.
  5. The design is good and easy to use.

At this point the wheels begin to fall off.

ShortCovers Weaknesses

  1. You have to be logged in to ShortCovers to bookmark pages.  
  2. You have to choose between scrolling down in the book OR doing page turns – This is an unnecessarily restrictive design decision.
  3. Worst of all, books are downloaded in sections i.e. you literally finish a page or a chapter and press Next Page to find that you have to wait a few seconds for the new section to download. Changing the settings didn’t help.

Either the setting is really hard to find or its a terrible idea i.e. lets download the second book chapter only when the user navigates into it.  Waiting 3-4 seconds for the chapter/page to load really kills the flow of reading.

ShortCovers Overall Review

The best discoverability out of all the Reading Apps and the in-built store make for a promising start. However, Shortcovers drop the ball with their strange decision to download books chapter by chapter.

ShortCovers Review Score: 6.5 stars out of 10.
Shortcovers Review Score relative to iPhone Reading Apps: 7.25 stars out of 10.

iPhone Reading Apps – The Rest

The 4 Apps reviewed above are the ones getting all the attention. However, there are a number of other reading apps that are worth looking at -

WattPad Review

The WattPad apps seems to have only user written books and stories – which makes sense as it’s a site set up to read and share ebooks.

The main features are -

  1. 3 Font Types and a sliding scale for Font Sizes.  
  2. 24 Font Colors and the same 24 colors available for the background. 
  3. AutoScroll with a nice slider to change scroll speed.  
  4. You can either scroll down or tap to turn pages. A nice combination.
  5. A ton of sharing options – Email, Twitter, Facebook.  

You can’t really get publisher published books (or so it seems). If you could the app would get a 7.75 or 8 out of 10 for iPhone reading and a 7 out of 10 for reading in general.  

Beam It Down’s iFlow

This seems to be a company creating book apps i.e. an app that is a single book.

It does a very good job and its Book Apps have some interesting features -

  1. Choose one out of 30 Fonts and one out of 25 Font Sizes.  
  2. 26 choices for Paper Color and 23 choices for Font Color.
  3. There’s an auto-scroll function. You can adjust the scrolling speed using touch buttons OR by tilting the iPhone.
  4. The tilting the iPhone to control the speed of the scrolling is a really, really cool feature.   
  5. There’s an in-built manual.
  6. There’s a Night Mode.

If you’re going to create a book app do consider these guys.

Readdle’s Shakespeare App

This is a simple app that does what it’s supposed to i.e. let you read all of Shakespeare’s works. The features -

  1. Turn your iphone upside down for full screen reading (another really cool idea like the tilt scrolling). 
  2. It has a very good search function that lets you circle through search results (#2 after B&N eReader’s Search). 
  3. 21 choices for Font and Background Color. 
  4. 7 Font Sizes.
  5. Scroll down using a swipe action or by tapping the bottom third of the screen.

The turn upside down short-cut and the search function are both very good design.

State of iPhone Reading

The 7 apps we have reviewed occupy the top spots in the App Store Books Section and they are doing a lot of things very, very well -

  1. ShortCovers has excellent discoverability.
  2. Kindle for iPhone has excellent focus on reading and WhisperSync is really impressive.  
  3. Stanza pushes the envelope on letting readerstinker with every aspect of ebook design and typography.
  4. B&N has a wonderfully done AutoScroll feature, very flexible Categories, and great annotations support.
  5. iFlow’s Tilt-Scrolling and Readdle’s Upside Down Full Page Mode shortcut are expanding what we can use accelerometers for.

There are almost certainly other apps amongst the 10,000+ book apps that are using great design ideas and doing innovative things.

The State of Reading on the iPhone is very impressive. It’s not an eInk screen and the screen size is rather small – despite that Apps are getting 7.5 stars out of 10 on my scale.

The Kindle gets 8.5 stars so 7.5 stars is very impressive for a Free App.

If eInk eReaders don’t evolve their technology and their application design fast enough reading Apps on the iPhone and the iReader/iTablet will catch up with them – perhaps as early as mid 2010. Dropping prices isn’t going to be enough to win.

The best option for pure Reading Devices is to use the iPhone as a breeding ground for ideas -

Scour the reading apps.

See what’s working. See what isn’t working but is a great idea.

Incorporate the best of the best into their own design.

A good place to start is what we’ve already seen.

Innovations and Features eInk eReaders should steal from iPhone Apps

Kindle, Sony Reader, and other eInk based eReaders can, and ought to, steal some of the innovative features iPhone reading apps have come up with. These include -

  1. ShortCovers’ approach to Discoverability (to be fair it does have lots of similarities to what Amazon already has).
  2. AutoScroll. 
  3. Using Touch and the Accelerometer in new and innovative ways. We already have a few really good ideas -

    Turn Device upside down to go to full screen mode.
    Tilt to change the scrolling speed – You could use the Kindle DX accelerometer for this.
    Use Touch and Sliding the Touch (the finger that is doing the touching) to change Scrolling Speed.
    Double taps to hide and show menus.

  4. B&N’s Categories Feature.
  5. Sliding Font Size Scale. The Sony Reader Touch Edition has a sliding font resizer – however, the resize gets lost if you turn pages.  
  6. Sliding Location Bar that lets you quickly jump around.  
  7. Page Numbers.
  8. Day and Night Modes (although this would probably eat up battery life faster). 
  9. Giving readers the option to change fonts and font boldness.
  10. Perhaps Themes – the Kindle for iPhone Sepia theme is amazingly good for reading. It might be quite difficult getting themes working with eInk though.

10 Responses

  1. [...] (Reading on the iPhone – Reading Apps Review) поделился двухдневным опытом чтения на iPhone. Дан обзор [...]

  2. Someone I know asked this question:

    Does anyone know if eBooks purchased on bn.com in eReader format will work in Stanza? Has anyone tested this?

    And I was wondering if you have tested this out by any chance!?

    Let me know!

    (PS. LOVE YOUR BLOG!)

  3. It does. Haven’t tested it – however, Stanza have a page with directions – http://www.lexcycle.com/faq/getting_ereader_titles_on_the_iphone

  4. [...] these steps are quick and painless. There are a ton of other eReading options as well. Here is a fantastic post about reading books on the iPhone. All of the apps mentioned in that post are worth your time to download and check [...]

  5. At this point, I have read as many books—and far more content generally—on Instapaper on my iPhone (I have also read several books in Stanza, Shortcovers, eReader).

    Instapaper has a reading experience *very* similar to these other apps; in some ways better. The big difference is that Instapaper is oriented to web pages, rather than “ebooks” — but once you get a text into it, the distinction falls away.

    Perhaps we fetishize the ‘book’ part of ebooks too much. What’s the difference between an ebook and a book-length web page? Mostly concept. Partly economic. Certainly nothing technical.

  6. [...] Kindle for iPhone – the lack of which had caused me to put Kindle for PC behind Stanza in my iPhone Reading Review [...]

  7. For a different kind of reading experience you could try out WordBag. It’s not really meant for book length reading, but rather for web-length pieces, but for that purpose it does the deed. You have to copy-paste the text you want to read to the app, but afterwards it is saved on the device so you can read it later or re-read it again and again.

    For the reading part, WordBag offers 2 choices: a normal scrollable text view and, in landscape mode, a rapid serial visual presentation of the text. I’m the developer of WordBag, so obviously I think it’s a nice reading app, but don’t take my word for it, take a look yourself and let me know what you think.

    http://linktoapp.com/WordBag

  8. [...] negatives that really killed KoboBooks’ App (Shortcovers) when we reviewed reading apps on the iphone were [...]

  9. [...] It’s puzzling to wait so eagerly for Stanza and then be disappointed – After all Stanza for iPad has all the goodness that made Stanza for iPhone my choice for best reading app on the iPhone. [...]

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