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BookReader for iPhone: You can't judge a book by its cover

David Winograd

We did a fairly extensive rundown of eBooks for the iPhone/iPod touch in August; you can take a look back if you're new to the eBook universe for Apple's mobile devices.

BookReader [iTunes Link] , a US$4.99 app for devices running OS 2.21 or higher, has just joined the crowded eBook market -- but it brings little to the table to recommend itself. The app when first run looks beautiful. You are shown a wonderfully rendered bookshelf which looks very similar to the one found in Classics [iTunes Link], but a bit more nicely rendered, showing the spines of books instead of covers in a scrolling list.

Impressive, but now what? I really had no idea since there were no instructions on how to operate the app either in the app, or on the Readdle site. This, as I've often said, is a major downfall of many of the apps in the store. It would be fine if it were an adventure game, but not at all acceptable in something offering utility that you would like to get at quickly.

The only documentation in the app is a cursory explanation of one of three methods of getting content into the app -- connecting via Wi-Fi and WebDAV to your computer in a fairly arcane manner. You connect to an external server and provide an app-created numeric password. From there you can add books to the server folder... or so they say, but they don't go as far as saying how. I added books to the server, and they never showed up in the app. I was left stranded on the Wi-fi access page and didn't know where to go from there. Now I know that I'm missing something minuscule, but that's exactly my point; there wasn't enough given to me to allow me to complete the task.

The second method of acquiring content is through Readdle Storage. You need to set up an account on the Readdle site which gives you a free 512 megabytes; larger amounts of storage are available for purchase. Once you set up an account, it works fine, but unless you know what to do, you may not find it on your own. You can easily add documents to Readdle Storage and they do show up in the app.

Many documents, unfortunately, don't look very attractive. Anything that started as a .pdf document winds up looking like garbage since all the graphics are gone, and the formatting is stripped out. The list of formats that BookReader handles is also lacking. It doesn't understand some very popular formats such as Kindle, MobiPocket and Microsoft Word's .DOC as do other apps such as Stanza [iTunes Link]. DRM is not supported, but that's par for the course in the eReader market.

The third way of acquiring books is through Project Gutenberg, a non-profit organization that provides over 30,000 public domain books. Using this method allows comparison with other apps on an equal to equal basis since just about all the 'bring your own content' apps can accept Project Gutenberg content. I would put BookReader into the same category as Free Books [iTunes Link] and Eucalyptus [iTunes Link] since they both use the Project Gutenberg library but do not allow in-app purchasing of current books (Stanza, and a large number of others, do allow purchases).

So how does the text look on the screen? Just okay. It's about the same as Free Books and not nearly as nice as Stanza which displays highly formatted text and illustrations. Honestly, for an app selling for US$4.99 it was disappointing, even more so because Stanza does it better for free.

The feature set allowing you to change the look of a book is fairly similar to many other apps with a few minor exceptions, or at least as far as I could tell with no documentation. Along with other apps there is a progress bar on the bottom of each page telling you what page you are on and how many pages are in the book. When you leave a book, a bookmark is placed and you'll come back to the same page upon opening the app. You can choose the method of encoding from UTF-8 to Mac and Windows Cyrillic, something far too technical for most users. I haven't seen this before and hope not to see it again. You can choose from 5 font sizes marked Tiny to Largest, and 2 font families marked Antique, looking something in the neighborhood of Times New Roman, or Grotesque, looking more like Monaco.

BookReader looks best using a small font size which displays the text decently formatted and spaced. For the background you can choose between old white (slightly sepia), night (which reverses black for white) and new white (standard black and white). This is far less flexible than much of the competition. The two things that can only be found here are a real-time clock and the ability to lock the orientation to either landscape or page view and not have it switch back and forth as you turn the device. At least that's all I could find.

Along with other apps, word search is provided, and probably a table of contents for non Project Gutenberg books. So I would imagine, anyway, since there is a button for it that doesn't work with the Project Gutenberg version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I used to compare the same page on various apps.

What's missing is the depth of features and ability to customize found in many other apps along with the option to buy current books. Stanza does it all better, integrates with your computer more easily, uses more formats, allows you to buy books, and it's free.

It's often heard that you can't judge a book by its cover, and that's exactly the case with the BookReader app. When first run, the bookshelf rendering is awesome, but that appears to be a mask covering the not-so-awesome way it works when compared to its competition. That's not to say that it might not contain all sorts of neat stuff that breaks it out of its crowded pack, but with no documentation, for the life of me, I couldn't find it. If it were me and I was looking for the ability to do just about everything BookReader does, but cleaner, richer and better, I'd download Stanza and save my money.

Check out some screen shots in this Gallery, and eBook users, let us all know what works for you.

Gallery: BookReader Gallery | 8 Photos

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