So you just got an iPhone (and/or iPad)… which ereader app do you need?

[Updates: An alert reader pointed out that Kobo does do ebook previews—I think I just missed it. However, there’s still no search and the page-turning/page number situation is still simply awful. On balance, I still think you shouldn’t bother with Kobo.

On a happier note (for iBooks fans), iBooks has adopted the Nook’s hold-and-swipe highlighting feature, which was my favorite thing about the Nook app. Really, the only thing I liked. Definitely no reason to even try the Nook app now. Three years and counting until Barnes & Noble is bankrupt.

I’ll try to keep this space updated with new features, but probably won’t.]

Merry Christmas! Several thousand people at least will be unwrapping an iOS device today. Here’s a list of the major ereader apps, and their pros and cons. We’ll see you again on Tuesday, when we go back to regular programming.

iBooks: Perfect for iOS readers

Pros: Buying books through the app store. Great highlighting, syncing, dictionary, and a ton of layout options. Two-page layout on the iPad, and fewer glitches than any other app.

Cons: Doesn’t work on any non-iOS device. Not your Kindle, not your Nook, not any E-Ink ereader. If you want to use one of those devices, you’ll want to use a different app. There isn’t even a desktop version of iBooks, you can only use it on an iPhone or an iPad. There’s also no real iBooks website, and navigating through the Books section of iTunes is a proper pain, so you’ll need to come to the app with a title in mind.

The gist: iBooks is also the only app that will let you buy books through the app store and your iTunes account—that ability is turned off for all other ebook apps. But that ease-of-buying-books is not what makes iBooks the best ereader app; instead, it’s the fact that all the others have significant downsides. iBooks has all the core functions—note-taking, highlighting, search, dictionary, and layout options—and they all work. If your iPhone and/or iPad is your main ereader, look no further for your new favorite app.

OverDrive: A must-have for everybody

Pros: Library ebooks. From your couch. For free.

Cons: Layout and navigation is kludgy. There is no search, highlight, note-taking, etc.

The gist: The OverDrive app lacks a whole whole lot of polish, but it’s the only one of these with a USP: this is how you borrow library ebooks (and even audiobooks) and put them on your phone. If you’ve already got a library card, you’ve got everything you need. If not, why not?

Kindle: You are heartless, sir

Pros: Exclusive Kindle singles by great writers mean I’m probably never going to delete this app. Syncs to Kindle devices, so a must-have for that crowd. Also, the iPad app can now do Kindle Fire mags, but unless you have, for some reason, both a Kindle Fire and an iPad, that feature is pretty useless. They’ve finally started using page numbers, so that’s good. And the Kindle store has the widest selection, in my own, strictly unscientific, tests (for example, the Kindle store has the Hunger Games, and iBooks doesn’t).

Cons: Amazon makes me feel unclean. I still buy things from them, but I never enjoy it. Once you get Amazon books, you’re locked into Amazon forever. Also, they have a tendency to delete people’s accounts for no reason (“warmest regards!”). And they never give money to charity.

The gist: Basically, if you already own a Kindle, using this app during your commute is easier than lugging your Kindle around. If you don’t already own a Kindle, don’t go over to the dark side now. (On a strictly technical level, the Kindle app has a lot of polish—it’s right up there with iBooks. The major downside is the ick factor.)

Nook: The less competent major corporate bookseller

Pros: The most innovative highlighting system out there, a press-hold-swipe process that’s pretty cool. The table of contents in-book is also really well done, my favorite of any of these apps. A nifty second app called B&N Bookstore that collects reviews and info about books and puts it all in a mobile layout (but unfortunately doesn’t let you buy ebooks).

Cons: Syncing between devices often glitches out. In fact, almost everything about this app often glitches out. There’s a permanent overlay in my library that reads “no matches found.” B&N just can’t seem to get this stuff right.

The gist: Barnes & Noble had a moment there where it looked like it might be just as good, in a technical sense, as Amazon, and with none of the icky Amazon vibe. That moment is over. B&N’s software and firmware (with the exception of the Nook Simple Touch, which people seem to love) is fundamentally cruddy, plain and simple. Don’t bother with this app unless you already have a Simple Touch. In which case, remember where you left off when you switch devices, because the app won’t.

Kobo: Such promise, such disappointment

Pros: Some of the most innovative ereader functionality in the world. Reading Life is a fun summary of your activity, and Kobo Pulse is an awesome way to socialize reading. Also, Kobo lets you read your Kobo books on a wide variety of other, non-Kobo devices, so you’re never in danger of being locked in, the way you are with Amazon or Nook. The Kobo app also boasts an onboard Instapaper interface that automatically syncs with your account.

Cons: Astonishingly lacks basic functions. There’s no search function, the page-turn situation is horrible, there are no page numbers (!), the place-finder is maddening, and there’s no ability to get samples of ebooks. Basically the app is phenomenal for everything except actually reading books.

The gist: Reading Life and Pulse are such awesome innovations that I really wanted to like the Kobo app, but I just can’t. First of all, there’s no search capability, something I’ve come to rely on in ereader apps, not just as a book reviewer but as a reader (if you forget who a character is, for instance, you can search for the first time they’re mentioned).

The page-turns, featuring a curling animation, are slow as hell, and you can’t speed them up or change them to a faster side-motion animation (you can make books scroll up and down like webpages, but I don’t like that). It’s also tough to get books and you often have to sit through long loading times.

The page number situation is horrible, in that page numbers don’t exist. You get page numbers within chapters (4/24 in ch. 3), and a percentage of the whole book read, but you never know what page you’re on in a traditional way, i.e. a single, global page number (125). That means that if you lose your place, good luck finding it. The place-finder at the bottom is unusable. It scrolls through the entire book, but with some invisible, greater space given over to the chapter you’re in.

So that bottom blue scrolling bar (pictured above left) maps out like this:

[p 1-52] [c u r r e n t c h a p t e r] [pp. 75-346]

However, they show you no navigational markings, so attempting to skip back three pages can easily send you back three chapters instead. Infuriating.

Worst of all, the Kobo store gives you no book preview option, so you can’t read excerpts of books before you buy. Previews are perhaps my favorite feature of the ebook revolution–they’ve become an integral part of my reading experience. Even if they fixed many of these other flaws, I need previews, and I’m not going to keep a whole different app just for that.

It’s a ridiculous example of an app that entirely eschews traditional functionality and strives to be unique. Where B&N is merely incompetent, Kobo has made active decisions that make their app unusable. It’s mind-blowing, but true.

3 comments to So you just got an iPhone (and/or iPad)… which ereader app do you need?

  • I absolutely hate the nav bar at the bottom of every single ereader app out there. If you bump that bar (While turning a page for example) you are instantly dozens or even hundreds of pages from where you were reading last and good luck finding your place. I use the kindle reader and frequently end up wasting twenty minutes enraged over having my chance to sit and relax ripped away from me as I futilely try to find my place while my breakfast grows cold.

    To be fair the iBook app sometimes gives you a chance to go back but not always.

    I would gladly pay twenty dollar if amazon would add a setting to hide it. I never use it except if I want to start over.

    • in the ios versions of most of these apps (iBooks and Kindle for sure), you can hide the nav bar by tapping the center of the screen.

      Make sure your device and the apps are up to date, this shouldn’t be an issue.

  • Carol

    The Kobo app is horrible. I hate the stupid cheery comments about my reading, and Kobo NEVER syncs to furthest page read between my devices. I will avoid Kobo books like the plague from now on. Kindle and iBooks are very good.

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