iPad Gems: iBooks, Kindle, and Two Other iPad Book Apps, Reviewed
Even though we don’t buy all or even most of our music from the iTunes Store, we give Apple serious credit for what iTunes and the iPod accomplished for the music industry—a unified, simple, and reasonably-priced interface for buying and playing music either on computers or on the go. Now Apple is trying to replicate that model with iBooks on the iPad, a free application that lets users buy and read books from major publishers, building upon Amazon’s previous work with the Kindle family of digital book readers. But unlike Apple’s approach to music, which started with a computer-based downloading and playback solution that extended to numerous portable devices, iBooks enters the world at a disadvantage: for the time being, it works only on the iPad, and the books Apple sells aren’t readable on other devices or even iTunes-equipped computers. Moreover, Apple is offering only a limited assortment of books, and iBooks relies upon a book publishing format that is incapable of properly rendering even visually intense printed publications, let alone more sophisticated interactive multimedia ones. For numerous reasons, iPod- and iPhone-like success is far from guaranteed for iBooks… at least in its current form.
This edition of iPad Gems reviews four different iPad book applications, focusing mostly on Apple’s iBooks, then offering an iPad-specific update to our previous review of Amazon’s highly similar application Kindle (Free), and finishing with a brief combined discussion of two stand-alone iPad-specific books, Atomic Antelope’s Alice for the iPad ($9) and Theodore Gray’s/Element Collection’s The Elements: A Visual Exploration ($13). Since a proper review of iBooks begins with an understanding of what Amazon previously attempted and accomplished with Kindle, we start with a little backstory before diving into the application reviews. Read on for all the details.
Background: Why Apple Would Care To Copy Amazon’s Kindle
Years before Apple introduced the iPad, it was well-established that the company was working on a larger version of the iPod touch—a device that many people guessed would directly compete against Amazon’s dedicated digital book reader, Kindle. But would it? Starting with the first-generation version in 2007, Amazon had pitched Kindle as the iPod of books, capable of storing and even wirelessly downloading an entire library within a thin, portable enclosure, and had made some strong though controversial design choices in the process. To achieve extended battery life, Kindle used a power-sipping black and white screen; to satisfy book publishers, it used a text-based electronic book format that was easy to create; to impress consumers, it included a free cellular wireless connection to enable new books to be downloaded anywhere, and a bookstore with reasonable enough prices. Kindle quickly became one of Amazon’s best-selling products, and the company released two largely similar hardware sequels, plus Kindle book-reading software for other devices. A user’s multiple Kindle devices and software can communicate with Amazon’s servers through a system called Whispersync, which lets books both exist and synchronize their current pages on multiple platforms, so you can pick up a book on one device from wherever you left off on another. It’s all Apple-level thoughtful, if not Apple-level execution.
Though Apple dismissed electronic books back in 2008, it was obvious that the company was open to taking a piece of that market, and wasn’t thrilled about Amazon’s increasing success with Kindle. Soon after Amazon debuted the iPhone and iPod touch application Kindle for iPhone, Apple announced In-App Purchasing, a new iPhone OS feature that gave Apple a 30% cut of any add-on content sold through iPhone and iPod touch applications—conceivably including Kindle books. Amazon wasn’t about to share book revenues with Apple. It responded by creating a web-based but iPhone-optimized Kindle bookstore to sell books for the Kindle application, which operated outside of the app and didn’t depend upon In-App Purchasing in any way. Apple was effectively stalemated by this tactic, and though it opted not to stop web-based Kindle purchases from being transferred to the iPhone and iPod touch, it continued to pick fights with other, smaller digital book reader makers for questionable reasons. The implication was that Apple was looking to discourage further development of the book reading category ahead of its own solution.
Previewed alongside the iPad at an January 2010 event in San Francisco, iBooks was released at the beginning of April 2010, and Apple’s strategy finally became obvious: rather than reinventing digital books, Apple would start by copying most of Amazon’s formula—openly—and beating it at its own game. Consequently, iBooks turned out to be a far more limited piece of software than many people had expected from Apple. One half of iBooks is a book reader that looks substantially like Kindle, but with a bookshelf-like library design lifted from the Mac program Delicious Monster. The other half is a book shop with an interface derived from the iTunes Store. Each part is discussed separately below.
Two key iBooks limitations are worth noting up front. First, it is currently an iPad-only application, though Apple has announced that an iPod touch and iPhone version will follow at some point this summer. Second, iBooks only displays books in ePub format, support for which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, ePub is an established, open digital book format that doesn’t force book publishers to adapt to something new and revolutionary; it also enables consumers with existing ePub books to read them using iBooks. On the other hand, ePub is a fairly primitive, text-heavy digital book format that looks and works very much like the format used by Kindle, adding only color pictures. As with the addition of iPod touch and iPhone compatibility, Apple may and hopefully will expand iBooks’ format support in future versions of the software.
The Library and Book Reader
iBooks starts by presenting you with a “Library,” an attractive virtual wooden bookshelf containing up to 25 books in portrait mode or 24 books in landscape mode, scrolling downwards to reveal more books if you have them. Alternately, you can display your books in a simpler scrollable and searchable text list, sorted either by the order of book acquisition—capable of being reorganized or pared down manually using an Edit button—or alphabetically by title, author, or category. Clicking on any book’s cover opens the book, zooming into low-resolution cover art, then filling the screen with one “page” if the iPad’s in portrait mode, or two “pages” if it’s in landscape mode.
Whether you’re impressed by Apple’s book reading interface will depend on whether you view Amazon’s Kindle as worthy of emulation or a radical overhaul. Apart from offering the aforementioned wide two-page view, Apple has essentially duplicated Kindle and added quality-of-life improvements rather than completely rethinking the concept of how books should be presented on digital devices—a concession to the way things already are in the digital book world, rather than a statement of how they should be. Consequently, this portion of iBooks is a glorified text file reader, presenting you with very modestly formatted text that flows from page to page without regard to its original printed layout, preserving only differences in relative font size, bolds and italics, and the general location of in-line pictures. Notably, even if you keep the font size the same, the pages aren’t the same size and don’t have the same number of words in the two orientations; rotating the iPad from portrait to landscape pushes words off the bottom of the screen onto the next page.
This approach has advantages and disadvantages. One positive is that iBooks can offer 10 different levels of text magnification, filling pages with as few as 10 huge characters per line across 7 or fewer lines, or dozens of lines at once with 70 or 80 characters per line. The iBooks-formatted book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, for instance, can be stretched to a 3518-page tome or reduced to 223, just shy of the actual book’s 244—mostly because it’s missing the original’s index. And thanks to a magnifying glass icon at the top right of every page, the index is arguably unnecessary: you can search for any word in the book and get a complete, clickable list of its occurrences, plus links to Google and Wikipedia, and an integrated dictionary that can define virtually any word you touch. The dictionary appears as a classy, scrollable overlay window above or below the word, and disappears when you touch elsewhere on the page.
If you want to skip pages, there’s a scrollable timeline at the bottom of every page that can be swiped through, or you can tap on the edges of the screen to flip backwards and forwards page by page. Apple’s single biggest cute touch is a page-turning animation that actually lets you curl a page gradually to see what’s on the next page, merely by gently holding the page’s corner and pulling towards the center of the screen. It also includes five different fonts—Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana—plus a brightness-adjusting feature that will dim or lighten the screen as you need with a slider. iBooks is actually capable of dimming the screen further than the iPad’s own brightness settings can achieve, a concession to users who really want to squeeze extra hours of life out of the device and don’t need bright backlighting to read. Unless you’re at iBooks’ dimmest settings, the iPad preserves most of the shifted brightness when you return to the Home screen; some users will like this, others will not.
There’s one concession to the desire of some readers to mark up their books, and that’s a feature called Bookmark, which enables you to select text with the iPhone OS’s Cut/Copy/Paste sliders, then highlight it with a yellow, green, blue, pink, or purple marker. iBooks indexes all of your bookmarks and lets you “unbookmark” or change the color at any time. Though this interface isn’t as convenient as, say, using a real highlighter or a stylus, it’s a good first step, and easy to undo if you don’t want the markings. A fuller system of annotation, particularly the ability to write margin notes, would dramatically increase iBooks’ value for educational and other users. Kindle for iPad offers a note-taking system, but only single-color highlighting.
The single biggest problem with iBooks is one that cannot possibly have been lost on Apple: completely reformatted books ruin the graphic design half of the reading experience. Put aside the fact that changing the font size can and often does result in overhanging lines of text, awkwardly interrupted paragraphs, and the relocation of pictures that really should be sitting next to certain words. Even if you set iBooks’ font size to match what’s in the book, there is no way to experience Ruhlman’s Ratio precisely as it looks in printed form, to find a fellow reader’s quick reference to “page 150,” or to even see the diversity of fonts the publisher originally used for emphasis or subtle aesthetic impact. Books that are not predominantly comprised of text have little place in the iBooks application as it currently exists, which excludes the wide range of heavily photographic, artistic, and otherwise visual publications that require more than just low-grade black and white screens for display. As noted above, Apple’s primary visual enhancement for authors is the optional inclusion of color images, which are spotlighted in A.A. Milne’s illustrated book Winnie-the-Pooh, currently given away by Apple as a sample for the iBooks application. These images are a step forward from what Kindle has offered, and unquestionably improve the iBooks reading experience, but cannot be zoomed into, animated, or otherwise enhanced using the techniques found in a number of other iPad book applications.
Finally, somewhat mixed in execution is one other feature that Apple has deservedly underplayed in iBooks: using the iPad’s system-wide feature called VoiceOver, iBooks can read books out loud with text-to-synthesized speech technology. The audio plays through the speaker, the headphone port, or the Dock Connector port. It’s notable and unfortunate that this feature is not accessed from within iBooks itself, but rather from the iPad’s Settings menu, where it’s hidden under Accessibility—an apparent concession to the book publishing industry, which threatened Amazon over the inclusion of a similar feature in Kindle, as well as a hint of Apple’s embarrassment that the feature doesn’t work very smoothly right now. VoiceOver in iBooks is better than it could be, reading not only the text of books but also the descriptions of images on the page, a feature that will help visually impaired users to enjoy more of the reading experience. Yet the interface needs some work, as the wide variety of clickable interface items on each page combines with the multi-finger gesture challenges of the VoiceOver system to create a sometimes frustrating experience for visually impaired users—sighted users certainly won’t want to suffer through it in order to hear their books being read. A better and easier text-to-speech interface would really help iBooks reach its potential.
Acquiring more books is as easy as hitting a Store button at the top left of the Library, flipping the bookshelf to reveal a book-focused clone of the iTunes Store with four bottom-of-screen tabs: “Featured” books, “NY Times” bestsellers, “Top Charts” for free and paid books, and “Purchases,” a list of books you’ve downloaded from what Apple is calling the iBookstore. For the time being, the iBookstore and iBooks itself are only available in the United States; Apple has promised that they’ll roll out in other countries in the future, presumably as it acquires book distribution rights on a country-by-country basis.
In a charitable gesture, it has equipped the iBookstore with tens of thousands of books from Project Gutenberg, which enable users to instantly download free classics such as the complete works of William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, though free books do not have covers and frequently have minor formatting issues of various sorts. On the flip side, free books have an advantage over purchased ones: iBooks lets you use a “copy” feature to appropriate words from an unprotected book, then paste them into a text file, e-mail, or another app, but copying is disabled for protected books.
It needs to be said up front that by Apple design standards, the iBookstore feels unfinished and rushed together; for instance, that tab for Purchases has little current value save to repeat items that are already shown in the iPad’s Library—a reflection of Apple’s plan to offer iBooks across multiple devices, including the iPhone and iPod touch, and thereafter enable “Purchases” to be portable between those devices rather than being resident on just one. At the moment, however, the iBookstore has the feel of an abandoned section of a department store, waiting for Apple to call in a crew to clean it up and bring it to life.
But iBooks still offers the bare functionality users need to buy and download books wherever they can get a wireless Internet connection: as with the iTunes Store, there are two-click price-and-download buttons, cover art and bare descriptions for the downloads, as well as user reviews. Most of the time. Some of the books have no reviews and no descriptive text, signs of low traffic for the iBookstore and less than complete publisher participation in generating the entries. Like Amazon, Apple offers free samples of books via a Get Sample button, which delivers a snippet of the book to the iPad’s Library.
Samples cannot be transferred back to iTunes, but full downloaded books can—purely for archival purposes. iTunes 9.1 currently has the ability to synchronize all books or just selected books from the iBookstore, but cannot let you read them on a Mac or PC, a major omission that could and should be fixed by Apple in the future. The company’s single Kindle-beating concession to users is iTunes’ ability to fill the iPad with ePub-format books—at least, ones without proprietary DRM. This excludes Amazon’s Kindle books and most of the ones sold by competing digital bookstores. Unprotected books you find using your PC or Mac can be dragged and dropped into iTunes, then sent over to iBooks on the iPad, but can’t be downloaded directly to the iPad from a non-iBooks source using Safari. As noted above, Apple mitigates the need to actually acquire books elsewhere by including much of the Project Gutenberg catalog within the iBookstore as free downloads, but the iTunes synchronization option is there if you have other DRM-free books and don’t want to wait for iPad-specific applications to use them.
As of the late April 2010 date of this review, Apple has reached out to all of the biggest publishers in the United States, offering a different book pricing model from the one Amazon had been using for years with Kindle—this model offered the potential of higher per-book profits for the publishers, and succeeded in roping some but not all of them into the iBooks camp, while leading several to contemplate ending their Kindle distribution. Yet as of today, Amazon has far more books in its Kindle store than Apple does for iBooks; Amazon offers over 500,000 books in Kindle format, and Apple is estimated to have fewer than 100,000 available for iBooks, even counting the free books it acquired from Project Gutenberg. This will obviously change over time, but for the moment, there is little or availability advantage to buying books through the iBookstore.
Like Apple’s iPad versions of Keynote, Pages, and Numbers, iBooks feels like a “just good enough” version 1.0 release rather than a completely finished and satisfying product. It does what Apple apparently set out to do—offer a complete and technically superior alternative to Amazon’s established Kindle software—but also uncharacteristically succumbs to the trap of following an old school example rather than rethinking the entire concept of digital book publishing and reading from end to end. This is concerning mostly in that Apple’s sale of books in a glorified text format may signal its reluctance to challenge book publishers to advance the medium forward, a perception that will only be changed if iBooks grows to include other types of books as well—ones that aren’t limited by the constraints of the ePub format, and quite possibly ones that both incorporate and encourage the interactive, multimedia content of standalone iPad book applications.
At a minimum, iBooks 2.0 needs to transcend the input limitations of Kindle and similar devices, enabling readers to add margin notes and similar features that will make the software useful for educational purposes. Hopefully, Apple will go even further by releasing an iBooks-specific book development kit with templates that enable publishers to easily recreate full-color and other highly visual books in an iBooks-compatible form—and hopefully, to design new books that couldn’t be produced on chopped-down trees. Like a collection of digital publications we previously covered in iPad Gems, the books we spotlight below light the way towards a far more exciting and compelling future for electronic books. iBooks 1.0 is a good book reader, but it’s surely only the beginning of something bigger. iLounge Rating: B.
With last year’s release of Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPhone and iPod touch, an iPad version seemed almost inevitable. In many regards, the Kindle for iPad app is merely a scaled-up version of its iPhone counterpart, but like so many other iPad apps, the larger screen alone makes a big difference.
The Kindle app on the iPad provides the same basic features as the iPhone version. You register your iPad with your Amazon account as a separate device, a process that enables the iPad to automatically download newly-purchased Kindle books from Amazon; your archive of previous purchases is also available from within the app in much the same way.
Major differences from the iPhone version are mostly cosmetic. The larger screen size allows for a redesigned home screen where titles can be viewed in either a list or thumbnail view. During reading, books are presented with a margin area around the text and a slight gradient effect around the edges that helps frame the text content. The iPad app also replaces the curled-page bookmark indicator with an actual bookmark image that is toggled by tapping in the top-right corner.
Amazon has also added page animations to the Kindle app for the iPad, providing a similar curling page-turning animation to iBooks. Note that these animations are disabled by default; to enable them, you must visit the Settings options from the main Kindle home screen, then disable “Basic reading mode.” Brightness controls are also available now from directly within the app, similar to iBooks. However, since the iPad’s hardware brightness controls are currently not accessible to third-party developers—a feature that Apple has reserved for itself and iBooks—Kindle accomplishes this by putting a darkening translucent overlay over the main reading area. As a result, pop-up dialog boxes remain at the original hardware brightness level regardless of the setting within the app. However this also means that unlike iBooks, brightness adjustments made within the Kindle app affect only the app itself. Some users will actually see this as a positive.
Like the iPhone version, users can choose between a white, black or sepia background, and select one of five pre-defined font sizes—half of the number in iBooks, without any additional font choices. Users can also make notes and single-color highlights in their books, and thanks to Amazon’s Whispersync technology, these notes and highlights are synchronized across all of your Kindle-enabled devices along with your reading position. Since many users own both an iPad and an iPhone or iPod touch, the Whispersync feature becomes more relevant for taking your reading on the go with multiple devices. Apple has announced plans for a similar feature when they bring iBooks to the iPhone later this year, but Kindle reading software runs on a wider variety of devices.
Unlike iBooks, the Kindle app notably lacks any means of searching through your books or looking up words in the dictionary—features that we find particularly useful in iBooks and even iPhone/iPod touch book reading apps such as Stanza. Further, since all Kindle books are by definition purchased and protected content, no copy-and-paste capabilities are available here either. Kindle also lacks the two-page presentation that iBooks uses in landscape orientation, instead simply providing a one-page view in either orientation, wider in landscape than in portrait. On the other hand, Kindle eclipses iBooks in enabling you to zoom in on photos, which Apple doesn’t enable you to do.
Purchasing books for the Kindle app still requires a visit to the actual Amazon.com web site, although admittedly this process is far less onerous in the iPad’s Safari browser than on the iPhone. The ability to purchase Kindle books from any computer and have them wirelessly downloaded to your device may be a distinct advantage for some users here, however; the iBookstore, by comparison, is only available directly from the iPad at this point. It should be noted that Amazon’s magazine and newspaper content still remains available only for use on actual Kindle hardware devices, an arguably disappointing limitation considering how ideal the iPad would otherwise be for reading this type of content.
Regardless of specific features, the major benefits of the Kindle app on the iPad at this point really come down to two things: availability of purchased content and portability of that content. Amazon not only has a much larger selection of titles available than Apple’s fledgling iBookstore, but it has the major advantage of international availability for its content. Amazon has also deployed Kindle applications to a wider range of devices, including not only the iPhone but also Blackberry, PC and Mac, allowing users to read their Kindle books in a much wider variety of places and situations. On the other hand, Kindle app users are limited to reading books that are purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store, leaving out many of the free public domain titles that are available from sources like Project Gutenberg or even eBooks that users may have in their own libraries. Our impression as of today is that Amazon’s Kindle application is going to need to radically expand its capabilities for the iPad, and fast, or it risks being eclipsed by iBooks. For the time being, Kindle offers just enough features on the iPad to keep prior Amazon customers reading, but the new searching and dictionary features Apple offers—combined with its aggressive push to expand its catalog—will likely start to win over Kindlers. Amazon’s going to need more than sepia and white-on-black color filters to keep people interested in this app going forwards; for now, it earns a rough tie with iBooks as an iPad application, with different advantages and disadvantages that will appeal to and turn away different users. iLounge Rating: B.
Though Apple and Amazon have both approached the digital book market with relatively old-fashioned, text-heavy reader applications, third-party developers have stretched the very concept of a book in creating standalone iPad book applications. Here, we look briefly at two noteworthy releases, Atomic Antelope’s Alice for the iPad ($9) and Theodore Gray’s/Element Collection’s The Elements: A Visual Exploration ($13).
Alice for the iPad is what we’d describe as an effective though not completely amazing evolution of a classic book, using 53 individually designed pages to present both the text of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland story and the illustrations of John Tenniel, with layout flourishes and animations provided by Atomic Antelope’s developers. Most of the pages are displayed with a shadowy border and a script-like brown texture that looks almost burnt, while text and black and white illustrations are fixed in specific locations above two page-turning arrows and a cat face for the Table of Contents. Some readers would describe these design elements as attractive, and others boring—little more than a fixed-size presentation of a story and art that can be had for free from Project Gutenberg. But there are moments when the layouts are surely impressive, using large words to make a strong visual impact on a page, and others where errors—a misplaced comma on page 10, for instance—makes you wonder how much time was actually spent checking over the individual layouts. It’s also worth noting that you can’t turn Alice for the iPad to landscape orientation; it displays only in portrait mode.
Where the book comes to life, however, is in its series of animated, full-color illustrations: scattered throughout the book, they aim to surprise, bringing Bill the Lizard straight out of a chimney with a pop, and seeing Alice literally expand in size as she sips from the “Drink Me” bottle. A recent update to the application lets you control the animations with touch gestures; previously they were handled only by tilting the iPad around. At first glance, these mildly interactive interruptions in the story are interesting, but as you continue to read through the book, it’s obvious that they’re rarely more than just objects that fall onto the floor, or items that similarly use very simple bounce effects to make static images come to life. Are they worthy of paying $9 to watch? No. By no means. But Alice on the iPad does demonstrate how the effective use of typography, animation, and layouts can in some ways make even a very old book seem new again. Get the free Lite version, which we previously covered, and you’ll have as much as you need to see in order to get the idea. iLounge Rating: C+.
In a completely different class is Theodore Gray’s The Elements: A Visual Exploration, which transforms a printed book on what could be the least interesting topic ever for mainstream readers—the periodic table—into an incredible-looking educational tool. The Elements begins with a video set to Tom Lehrer’s classic same-named song, showing the step-by-step building of the periodic table using photographs assembled by Gray and collaborator Nick Mann, then confronts you with something amazing: a completely interactive, fully animated table that screenshots alone cannot capture. Carbon is rendered as a rotating diamond, Hydrogen as a moving cloud in space, and Neon as red gas in a spinning glass “Ne” sign, all from actual 360-degree photographs of the elements.
This would be an impressive feat in and of itself—just think for a moment of how much work is necessary to render all 118 elements as moving objects at once—but then you click on any of the elements and a new page comes up. Most of the screen is devoted to one huge, moving photograph representing the element, alongside scientifically useful data, such as its atomic weight, radius, crystal structure, density, melting point, and boiling point; clicking on the numbers calls them up within a Wolfram Alpha database directly within the application, assuming that you’re connected to the Internet. Though Internet access really shouldn’t be required for this feature—a database within the app could and should handle all the work on its own—the idea of being able to access even more detailed reference information from this book is incredibly appealing. Future books for the iPad should embrace the app-in-book idea with at least as much gusto, as these tools will keep the books from gathering virtual dust on digital bookshelves.
The second page of each element is generally even better. Most of the elements include text—well-written, sometimes even funny details—and a number of different animated pictures that can be spun around in 3-D, tapped to zoom in, and even displayed in stereoscopic 3-D if you have a pair of glasses or are able to contort your eyes. These 3-D items are attractive enough to serve as still images, which they did in the printed version of The Elements, but seeing them moving in 3-D and being able to look at some in greater detail is just plain exciting. It’s also space-consuming: The Elements requires 1.76GB of storage space, or as much as many of the GPS applications we’ve reviewed for the iPhone and iPod touch, and took roughly 30 minutes to download directly from the App Store to the iPad. Blame the number and resolution of the photographs; here’s hoping that future applications will use comparatively low-memory 3-D models with high-resolution textures instead.
Far more than Alice for the iPad, The Elements demonstrates vividly just how powerful the iPad can be as a next-generation reading device: it’s even worth reading and experiencing if you’re not a scientific sort, as the text and moving images will bring you up to speed and capture your imagination in a way that looking at a old-fashioned textbook or table couldn’t hope to match. Our hope is that iBooks evolves to include publications like this, complete with tools that enable authors, photographers, and 3-D modelers to produce similarly impressive results with smaller storage footprints; this is a fantastic individual download, but only Apple has the ability to get the entire book publishing industry to follow its examples. iLounge Rating: A-.
The review of Kindle for iPad and additional reporting were contributed by Jesse Hollington. Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.
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