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iPhone Readers: eReader

In my quest to find a one-stop ereader program for my iPhone, I’m finding myself nothing short of frustrated.  Some programs look nice, but have little functionality (Classics, for example, which I will review later this week) some have better functionality but are buggy and ugly (Stanza and Bookz; reviews are also on the way), and others come close, but ultimately stumble over their own feet.  eReader fits squarely into this third category.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me lay out my basic criteria for what I would consider a worthwhile (and possibly worth my money) ereading program for the iPhone:

  • It should be able read just about any ebook file I want to load on it.  At the very least it must handle PDF and TXT files.
  • I should be able to manage my ebooks from my computer, at least in some rudimentary way (such as loading books I buy from various ebooks stores or that someone emails me).
  • It should at least attempt to dampen the eye strain that comes inevitably when staring at the iPhone for long periods by changing background colors; more importantly, it should look good and allow me to customize viewing options.
  • It shouldn’t crash or freeze with any sort of regularity.
  • I should be able to easily connect to various online services to download books.  I should be able manage these, and choose the services I want.
  • There should be bookmarking and note taking tech built in.  Text searching is also necessary.

That’s really not asking a lot.  For the most part, the readers I’ve tried hit all but one of these, getting so close, but yet remaining oh so far off from winning my favor.

eReader has a fair but not great amount of customization options.  You can change text size, choose from three fonts, read black on white or white on black.  Alas, there is no zoom pinch gesture, but it does switch to landscape with the accelerometer (and, a nice touch, there is a lock button to prevent the accelerometer switching view modes, which is nice if you are laying down).  The ability to search text is there and seems to work nicely.  The bookmarking definitely works nicely, just tap the upper right corner and the page dogears.  You can flip between these marked pages through a quick menu.  The notes function works well too, you simply highlight text with your finger then type in notes corresponding to what you highlight.  The only downside to this is that too often I accidentally highlight text when I’m trying to gesture a page turn, and vice versa.  (You can switch page turning from gestures to tapping the side of the screen to get around this, but I don’t want to have to do that; I prefer the page turning finger motion.)

There are quick links built into eReader that bring you  directly to the two ebookstore sponsors eReader.com and fictionwise.com , where you can buy ebooks directly from your phone.  You can also manage bookshelves though these sites to sync up your program. Be warned if you try this though: if you want to access the bookshelves on both the sites at once, make sure to use the exact same login info when you sign up, as the program can’t handle two separate logins at once.  There is also a quick link to manybooks.net which is handy and works well, and if you wish can add you own site to pull books from.  This last button is near useless, though.  Why?

Because this is where eReader shoots itself in the foot: you can only use the Palm PDB format.  PDF? Nope. Text file? Nope. It sucks. Luckily PDB is available from manybooks or I would have scrapped this program a while ago.  It baffles me that they don’t open it up. It might be because they don’t want to program the bookmarking and highlighting technology for other formats (in which case I’d rather have limited functionality with some formats then be flatly denied), but I suppose it’s to force you to use their bookstores, which have a decent selection of second tier novels, but nothing I really want to read.  If you’re big on Nora Roberts or Star Wars novels, or anything else you’d get from Publishers’ Clearing House you’re in luck.  If you’re not, you’re right back out of luck.

Generously, you can add “personal content” to your eReader app, which means you can upload your own books.  But it’s such a hassle it’s not even wort thinking about attempting.  You need to convert your files to PDB, then upload them to your bookshelf on ereader.com then sync them with your app.  Luckily, I’m so turned off by the forced PDB that I didn’t waste my time trying this.  Their site is messy and convoluted enough that there’s no way this isn’t a hassle.  I downloaded the eReader program on my Mac, thinking it was a companion program.  But there’s no cross functionality with my iPhone.  Since I was still forced to route all my activity though their online bookshelves, I quickly deleted it as I had no use for it.
All told, eReader fails because the single format hamstrings the user.  Open up to other formats, add a little color, and I’ll revisit you, eReader.  Until then I’m still looking.

1 comment to iPhone Readers: eReader

  • On the other hand, eReader (nee Palm Digital Media, nee Peanut Press) was pretty much the commercial e-book app for Palm for a long time—so people (like me) who bought Peanut Reader books back in 1998 when they had a Palm III can still download and read them on an iPod Touch. Considering the rate at which formats change in the computer world (are you still using 1998 floppy disks in your 2009 computer?) that’s pretty impressive.

    You’re slightly in error that it only reads its own PDB format. It actually reads its own (pre-formatted) PDB format, and the PalmDoc (unformatted ASCII text) format that was in popular use back in the PalmPilot days. But almost nobody uses the latter anymore.

    It’s not really that hard anymore to create eReader-formatted books. There are macros for both Word and OpenOffice that make it easy. I’ve done a number of conversions myself, in fact.

    There are a lot of good things about the eReader format, most notably that its HTML-style markup is easy to understand. If I want to make a table of contents, all I have to do is mark the chapters and it assembles them automatically. (Compare this to Mobipocket, where to this day I still don’t know how to make a working table of contents. It’s all so obfuscated, there’s no figuring it out.)

    Even so, the eReader folks have recognized that the format needs an upgrade, and sometime this year they will complete adding the ability to read ePubs in an eReader DRM wrapper (and, presumably, plain-vanilla ePubs too) to every one of their eReader apps. (When you consider how many different platforms they support, that’s quite an accomplishment.)

    Also, you don’t have to use the eReader/Fictionwise bookshelves. You can run a webserver on your own computer and point the program at that instead if you like. Even so, for someone used to having to download to desktop then sync, being able to download (and even to buy!) an e-book from anywhere I can get a wireless signal is pretty darned neat.

    (If you want to blame someone for the whole overcomplicated business of using the iPhone app to pull the book down rather than syncing it with a desktop client, blame Apple’s refusal to let anything but music, movies, and apps move over the USB conduit. Thus, every app that depends on external content has to find its own separate way of putting it on, and it ends up being a big fat mutually-incompatible mess.)

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