iBooks Wins the E-Reader Race by a Nose
You might be surprised at how enjoyable it is to read a book on an iPhone. It certainly doesn't beat out an actual bound volume in terms of comfort, but the convenience factor is huge, and after a few minutes of reading, you might forget you're using a phone completely. Of the three major e-reader apps on the market, each has its own strengths, but the iBooks app wins with its familiar, iTunes-like layout.
In two weeks, I've read more novels on my iPhone 4 than I have in the last 6 months -- on purpose, and not because I'm writing about electronic books right now. As I stumbled into this, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to care that much about them. I downloaded an iBook sample of the first Lee Child novel about Jack Reacher, a former military police major who drifts across America and somehow manages to get tangled up in all sorts of trouble that requires fists, elbows and guns to get out of.
Late one sleepless night, I read the sample in bed. At the end of it, I wasn't tired, so I bought it. Had it in hand, on my iPhone 4, seconds later (and a charge for US$8.99 would end up on my credit card sometime in the near future, too). A couple hours later, I was well into the novel -- and hooked. Not only did I have an $8.99 investment to complete, but the story was compelling, too.
Frankly, I was surprised. I went into this first book with common preconceived notions about the text being too small, or if it wasn't too small, there would only be a few words per line, making it a pain to read. You know what? It's not a pain to read. It's actually not that bad. In fact, with only a little practice, I was able to read without paying attention to the physical nature of the iPhone 4 and the electronic books ... so that I was only enjoying the writing material and not messing with the interface.
Not as Good as Print
Still, on the relatively small iPhone 4 screen, the reading experience isn't better than print: Give me a choice at any given moment, and I'll take the print version every time. And yet there's something I like much better than print: convenience. Because my iPhone is with me wherever I go, I can have a book with me too. If I'm waiting in line at the bank, I can read a few pages. If I'm waiting for a dentist appointment, I can read a few pages. If I've got 10 minutes to kill before I need to head out the door, I can read for 10 minutes.
With a multitasking iPhone 4, your book is only a double-tap of the home button away.
If there's one feature that's nearly as good as reading anytime, it's buying a new book anytime. I finished one book in the middle of the night, and not being anywhere near tired enough to sleep (drank coffee far too late in the day), I turned around and bought another Jack Reacher novel. I'm not sure it even took two minutes to find it, buy it and download it.
So convenience, it turns out, rules.
Comparing iBooks, Kindle for iPhone, B&N eReader
There are three major e-reader applications available for the iPhone, and I've messed around with all of them. My favorite is the Apple iBooks app -- but not for any single, major compelling reason. There are a few things I appreciate, though, and the first is integration. If you've got an iPhone, you've likely got an active iTunes and App Store account, which makes buying things a breeze. Because iBooks is Apple's e-book app, it's totally integrated into the phone and into your account, using similar features and designs as the already familiar iTunes and App Store apps.
Kindle for iPhone and the Barnes & Noble e-reader apps, however, aren't quite as integrated. You need an account for those online stores, of course, and when you launch their respective reader apps, you get pushed to the Safari browser on your iPhone to select and download e-books. Plus, once you buy an e-book for the first time through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, there's a moment when you're not quite sure what's going to happen next -- how is the e-book going to get to the reader and onto the iPhone? Well, your purchase is tied to your account, and the apps are tied to your account, so when you launch the apps they can access your account and then go out and snag your newly purchased e-books. And like any good cloud, your e-books are available to you far into the future.
The Apple version is more seamless, but this isn't saying that the Kindle or Barnes & Noble method is difficult. In fact, all three methods are intuitive and easy enough to use. All told, you ought to be able to create a new account (assuming you don't have one), download an e-book and begin reading within 10 minutes or so. That's a win all the way around.
Slick vs. Customizable Interfaces
So how do you choose which to use? The Apple iBook interface is the slickest of the three, and yet it's also the least customizable. When reading a book, it retains the look of a book -- a few graphical edges of paper on the right and a slight curve of the paper page into the virtual binding on the left. And when you swipe to turn a page, you're treated to a fast graphical animation of a physical page turning. It's not as cool nor as irritating as you might think. It does, however, waste a lot of white space in the margins, which I didn't even notice until I started reading a book on the Kindle app. The Kindle app isn't as polished, but it stacks far more words onto a page than the iBook version.
The cost: a toss-up in readability. The iBook's text seems sharper and easier to read, but it's also less dense. The Kindle, on the other hand, more easily fits more words on the screen, which in turn makes it easier to read and grok the text without needing to swipe or tap to the next page. It's a compromise with no clear winner.
The Barnes & Noble eReader app is similar to the Kindle, but the B&N app is more easily customizable. Instead of the default straight-line justified margins on the Kindle, B&N eReader lets you change those settings, as well as change the font, among other settings.
The B&N eReader and Amazon Kindle apps also have other interesting features. With Popular Highlights set to the On position, you can discover what other readers are highlighting in the books you're reading. And if you're using the e-books for school or research, you can have Amazon.com automatically back up your annotations online.
The B&N eReader app has an automatic scroll feature that seems hellbent on inducing headaches -- it's kind of jerky on my iPhone 4 -- but the B&N app also has a truly awesome feature: You can lock the position of your book so that when you're lying in bed and shifting positions, even holding the iPhone sideways, it won't automatically slip into landscape mode on you. While we're at it, you can also choose your margin width, further letting you customize your reading experience, which is what it's all about, really.
All-in-All, Try One Out!
If there's one takeaway here, it's that you might be pleasantly surprised by e-books on your iPhone. If you've got a Kindle or a Nook, then sure, you'll probably end up using apps from those respective vendors.
In the end, though, they're all pretty good apps, and once you're sucked into a great storyline, reading into the wee hours, your only worry might be running your iPhone battery down until it forces you to call it a night.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.