Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I am what the book industry calls a “power reader.” I read a lot of books (at least 300 a year), and I read them quickly. With that sort of intake, using an e-reading app that I like is important; there’s nothing worse than starting to read on an app and then realizing midway through a book it doesn’t have a feature you want, or it has some other limitation.
Admittedly, most reading apps will do the job. They’ll let me read the book on my tablet. But I like a little more than just your basic level of functionality. Trying to narrow down what is important is hard; a lot of it is just the feel of the app. But the main things that I care about as a heavy reader are a good user interface (the page on the screen looks nice, also referred to as UI), how progress is marked (a slider, percent, page number), and how bookmarks and notes work. That might not be where everyone’s priorities are, but that’s most of what I want to know. Of course, other features enter into the recipe of what makes a great e-reading app, especially the special features of some apps, but they’re icing on the cake.
With that in mind, I pulled out my trusty iPad mini (all of these apps will also work on a full-sized iPad, but I happen to have a mini) to try out 15 e-reading apps. I compiled this list from other sites that have listed good reader apps, a glance at the most popular e-reading apps in the app store, and word of mouth — what people seemed to talk about using. They range from the very popular — Kindle or iBooks — to the much less known — Sharereader or txtr.
To evaluate them, I read about fifty pages on each and then explored the app a little, trying out the features. I then rated them from one to five, with one being not usable and five being excellent.
A note: these are all iPad apps. Most of them also have analogues for other operating systems, but others don’t, and there are some apps that work on other tablets but not on the iPad. The apps are listed alphabetically and not in order of rank.
It may not come as a surprise, but my favorite e-reading app for the iPad was iBooks, which trumped some of the other best ones — Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Sharereader — by having all the features I crave as well as an in-app store so I can easily keep on reading. For detailed commentary on each app, keep on reading!
Blio’s probably looks the most book-like on the page: title at the top and page number somewhere on the page, depending on the publisher’s format. It’s pretty standard other than that: resizable text with an option of fonts, three themes (night, day, and sepia), highlights in multiple colors, in-text notes, in-text search, bookmarks. Notes only appear as highlights in the text, which I don’t like as it doesn’t allow you to differentiate between notes and highlights. The bookmarks don’t show up on the page, which is another little thing I dislike. You can set it so tapping one side or the other doesn’t turn the page, which is a useful feature for lefties (though being right-handed myself, I wouldn’t know). Another cool feature is that you can buy voices that will read to you. If you don’t want to buy audiobooks, that could be a good option.
Bluefire is a standard base for a number of other apps. Its UI is pretty simplistic, with only the text appearing on the page unless you’re interacting with it. The text itself is much more customizable than other readers: as many fonts and themes as you might want, four different possible page transitions. But annotating is more difficult: Bookmarks aren’t marked in the text, only in a list elsewhere. And deleting notes or highlights can only be done in a separate menu, which is inconvenient. The progress bar is a slider — pages out of total pages, but only visible after tapping the screen. One really convenient thing about Bluefire, though, is that it has an orientation lock option, so the screen won’t switch views on you when you tilt the tablet.
Bookish Reader: 3
This is just the Bluefire app run through the Bookish store.
This is one of the few paid e-reading apps and for $2.00 it allows you to read all the free books on its affiliate websites. It has the percent-read always on the top right corner of the page, but to learn or change anything else is a hassle: Changing the settings (of which there are the standard options) takes you to a whole new page, rather than a drop down. Bookmarks are not marked on the page — they’re noted by percent, which is less useful to me than having them on the page. There are no notes, highlights, or search.
Google Play Books: 3
It has all the standard features, including the ability to turn the page turn animation on or off. At rest, the page displays the title and author at the top of the page, then the slider and total pages at the bottom. With a tap, you can see what page and chapter you’re on. I like being able to see my progress without tapping the page, but only knowing the total number of pages doesn’t actually tell me very much. The UI isn’t great: It’s hard to remove the highlights, and trying to bookmark a page often results in just turning it.
For Goodreads, keep in mind I’m mainly rating the reading app, not the social content. Goodreads is first and foremost a community of readers, and because of that, the reading app has fewer standard features. No font changes, only two themes (white and neutral), no search capacity, no notes. You can bookmark a page, but it’s a tiny mark in the upper right-hand corner. The page turn animation is a full turn, not just a curl, which is a little jarring and not very aesthetically pleasing. You can tell your progress with a slider and percent finished, seen when you tap the page. All that being said, that’s not the only point of the app: Its social capabilities are quite extensive, the most important, to me, being book recommendation and rating in the book. The feature would be so much better, however, if you could buy right through the app, which isn’t allowed.
The best thing about iBooks is that it’s incredibly easy to get books on the iPad. The other apps require you to go to their websites to buy ebooks; iBooks has a store built into the app. There are seven fonts, multiple highlight colors and the usual three themes, so nothing extraordinary there. The notes are marked both by highlight and in the margins, making them easy to see. The progress bar shows a slider and what page you’re on out of the total. It also tells you how many pages are left in the chapter, which is nice. Interface-wise, this is the only app I found where you can set it either to appear as a book, with pages, as a full screen page, or as a continuous page of text that you can scroll down, website-like. I’m not sure when I would use the continuous scroll, but I like knowing it’s there.
This is the standard to which most other e-reading apps are compared, so in a way it’s the hardest to rate. The notes are listed, but when you’re scanning for them in the text, the icons are hardly noticeable. Progress through the book is marked as a slider and percent-done, which I like less than knowing page count—I want to know how much longer I have to read, not how much I’ve read. A cool feature is the ‘popular highlights’, allowing you to see what other readers have highlighted. It’s nifty if you enjoy that; I don’t particularly trust other readers enough to want this, but that’s fine, because you can turn it on or off.
Kobo’s thing is social reading and gamification, and the app is very clear about that. Other people’s notes and highlights are easily visible (you can even comment on other people’s notes), and with the tap of the pulsing button at the bottom of the screen, you can see the “buzz” about the book — what other readers are saying. There are also games and awards you can get for having finished a certain number of books. You can see your reading stats — how often you read, for how long, and how many more sessions you would need to finish the book, among other things, and those are always interesting to know. Progress is measured in a slider and pages left in the chapter — nothing’s said about total pages. You also can’t search in text. The bookmarks have a nice dog-ear graphic. Overall, the UI struck me as a little overcrowded, with too many features cluttering up my reading experience. But I’m not a very social reader — if you like sharing your thoughts and seeing what other people think of books, this is the app for you.
The only reason I did not give Marvin a “5” is because it only works on digital-rights-management-free ebooks, which, for me, means only free, out of copyright titles. Otherwise, it has everything I need: as many font and theme choices as you could wish; bookmarks marked on the page; easy highlights in multiple colors; and the ability to set shortcuts for how page transitions work. The pages left in the chapter is always shown at the bottom of the page, and at the top the page it alternates between the author and the percent finished of the book. While not my ideal, I like knowing the page count without having to fuss with the screen. The app also tells you how long you’ve been reading, and lets you set messages to yourself in five minute intervals — which, if you’re like me and tend to get caught up in a book, is invaluable. The main cool thing about Marvin, though, is the “Deep Read” feature, which gives a precis of characters, a book summary, and lets you search for articles about the book or author. For a longer or more involved book, I can’t imagine a more useful feature. On the downside, it’s very hard to tell where a note is as opposed to just a highlight. I also sometimes had issues with the page transitions.
Megareader only allows you to read free books, which is great if you only want to read things that are out of copyright, but for someone with more modern tastes, it’s very limiting. It does have a lot of options, though: You can adjust the page view, the UI (what different taps do in the app), and the orientations, among other things. It does not, however, have bookmarks, notes, highlights, or in-text search. You can also only see progress by tapping the center of the page to bring up the menus, and even then it’s only a slider and pages/chapter, not out of the total, which is often more useful. It also costs $2.00, which isn’t much of a deal considering the other free apps.
Nook has a nice, simple look to it. If you aren’t interacting with the page, there’s just the title and the author at the top, which gives it a bookish feel. It has six themes and six font choices, two different page-turning animations, but only one highlight color. With a tap to the screen, you can also see a slider bar and pages read out of total pages. The notes are very nicely marked and easy to remove if necessary. You can also jump to a page number using the search feature, which is a convenience you don’t have with paper books.
The Bluefire App again, this time through the Sony store.
Readmill is another social reading app. It’s pretty basic otherwise: no bookmarks, only one font and two themes (night and day). The page turns are a simple slide, with no other animation. Your page out of the total pages shows up at the bottom of the page even when other menus aren’t showing, which I like. The point of this app, however, is the social side, mainly focusing on highlighting. You can not only comment on your highlights, you’re expected too; you can then see the highlights and comments of people you’re following. If you make your comments public, other people can comment on them. That’s great and all, but I think the app sacrifices reading experience for the social aspect. One fun thing is that the apps times you, so you can know how long you spent reading the book.
Though not particularly popular, to my mind Sharereader is one of the better reading apps available. It has the usual features as well as the ability to change a left-side tap to a forward page turn. Notes are very visible; highlights, on the other hand, don’t show up in the text at all, which is counter-intuitive. The page turn animation is a bitt stiff, but you can set the transition to slide or nothing at all if you get sick of it. What I really liked was that the pages read out of total pages shows up at the bottom of the page even at rest, which is exactly what I want to know. If you tap the screen, it also tells you how many pages there are per chapter. The books themselves also look more bookish than some of the others apps, and less like a website.
Another more or less standard app. It tends to be slower, both at loading its pages and at things like searching, which makes for a less pleasant reading experience. The search does give both page number and percent, which means no matter how you measure your reading, you can find it. The slider also stays visible even when the other menus aren’t, very subtly positioned at the bottom of the page. The notes only show up as highlights, but they’re easy to remove. Other than that, there’s nothing particularly stand-out about it one-way or the other.
I didn’t give any of these apps a 1. That’s because, in the end, they all allowed me to do what I needed to do: read my book on a tablet. The rest is basically window dressing. A lot of what I’ve done above is nitpicking and very, very subjective — I don’t particularly like or need the social features, so I rated the apps that prioritized them over UI less highly than someone who wants to discuss their books with other users might. I’m used to Apple products and interfaces, which could make me favor iBooks, while someone who’s a PC user usually might not be as attracted to it.
In the end, for most people, the question of which reader to use will come down to brand loyalty, and the store you want to shop at. Which isn’t a bad thing; I like certain imprints of print books because I’m used to their aesthetic and I like their layout. All of the readers will give you what you basically want; you just have to decide what little details are most important to you and focus on those. For me, it’s mainly how they measure progress and the look on the page. But others might feel differently, and their ratings could be drastically different from mine because of that.