Sunday, January 24, 2010

You don't really need a device, do you? Part II: ePub readers

The on-screen eReaders reviewed in this post all accept the IDPF standardized ePub format eBooks. That doesn't mean that every ePub you acquire can be read on all these devices. DRM protected eBooks are still typically readable only on the platform/device that they are sold for. The major non-Amazon eBook players in the market today, Adobe, Sony, and Barnes&Noble, have all announced support or standardization on the ePub format. We can only hope that sometime soon they agree on a single DRM solution so we can read our books on whatever device or screen-reader we choose. Currently, it is kind of like saying you can read the paper books on your bookshelf only in the room where that bookshelf is. You can't take them from the bedroom to the living room and are absolutely forbidden to read them on the bus!

Enough of that rant! I started out just grabbing an unprotected copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in ePub format (you'll find dozens), but I quickly realized that many, or even most, of the ePubs in the market today aren't very well-constructed. Each person or company that makes a conversion from print or text files has its own set of style classes that it uses and generally ignores good XHTML coding and element-usage in creating their ePubs. So, I grabbed the text for the first chapter of Alice from Google Books and coded it as cleanly as I could with as few styles as I could manage. The book includes large illustrations centered between paragraphs and floating images. It includes a unique treatment for the first word of the first chapter. I set a style for the page that includes a margin at top and bottom so the text doesn't smash up against the top of the reading window, set left and right padding on the body text and removed the space between paragraps, adding a paragraph indent instead. The rest is raw, unstyled text.

Adobe Digital Editions

Adobe Digital Editions is one of the premier reading applications for the PC on the market and is one of only a handful that are not linked to any specific device. ADE supports PDF, ePub, and Sony Reader formats. It has a reasonably good interface and automatically formats text into multiple columns if your reading window is very wide. Best of all, in my book, ADE supports borrowed content, as in what I check out of the public library. I'm almost ashamed to say that I've only purchased a very few eBooks for myself because so many are available from the library. ADE did a lovely job of laying out the eBook and following most of my layout instructions, like centered graphics or floating graphics. You can choose from four different type-size settings, bookmark locations, and find text in the book. Nicely done.

Sony Reader Library

The Reader Library is designed to work with whatever model Sony Reader you happen to have, managing your bookshelf, purchased and borrowed books, and synchronizing with the device. It also has a pretty good on-screen reader included in it. Well, it should be pretty good as Sony licenses the Adobe Mobile Reader software for its display. So, if it works on Adobe Reader, it should work on Sony Reader Library as well. The two share a DRM, so most books in ePub format licensed for Sony will work on Adobe and vice versa. Sony Reader has seven different type sizes to choose from, but only one page size. It has the ability to bookmark and make notes.

Barnes & Noble Desktop eReader

The first time I loaded an ePub book in this reader I got excited. It has an elegant interface with reader settings that are the best ever. The layout of the screen, in fact, is reminiscent of the Microsoft Reader, including its page bar at the bottom that indicates how far into the book you've read and the automatically generated header at the top that tells you what chapter you are in. I can choose what size type I want and how much space between lines. I can control the width of the viewing pane to meet my own personal preferences. And the thing is that almost every eBook looks good in this reader because the Barnes & Noble Desktop eReader ignores all the formatting that the designer put into the book and applies your personal viewing preferences. Since a bejillion% of the eBooks that have been produced today appear to have been generated by machines without human intervention, that is great news. eBooks that have actually been designed by someone who knew what they were doing are few and far between. Unfortunately, you'll never know if you use the B&N reader because it will impose your personal design on the book no matter what that designer has done. I was so close to giving this reader three thumbs up that my disappointment sent me into three days of mourning. Why? I discovered that the reader ignores floating graphics and sets them as in-line graphics. Apparently content is as dispensible as the design because it is often missing from the layout completely. Yes, between pages 1 & 2 there were 5 lines of text missing! The same on every page, no matter what I set the reader preferences at. No matter how great a book looks on your reader, an absolute requirement is that all the words are there! Blech!

Mobipocket Reader Desktop

Missing content in Mobipocket Reader Desktop 6.2 includes all the images. In Mobipocket, you can set your own preferences as to what font and size you want to view your book in, how big the margins should be, and what the line-spacing should be. You just can't view the pictures. Mobipocket also reformats into multiple columns if your screen is wide enough. In single-column mode, it is a scrolling interface. clicking the left or right arrows advance or return one screen-load, but you can also scroll up or down a line at a time. When in multi-column mode, up and down advances by a full screen load just like left and right. If you just want a clean, uninterrupted reading experience, Mobipocket could be your choice, but I rather like to see the pictures if illustrations have been included.

Calibre eBook Management

Calibre brings us into a new genre of eBook readers. In fact, Calibre is mostly not for reading, but rather for managing and manipulating your library. Calibre does a nice job of laying out the eBook in an unpaginated (scrolling) interface, but all the content is there. That means, however, that there are no margins at top and bottom and there are frequent half-lines of text or pictures that are split between screens. The real strength of Calibre is the file conversion feature. You can convert to and from a dozen different file formats, including PDF to ePub. Definitely worth a look.

Stanza for Windows

Reading an eBook in Stanza is like reading it in your Web browser, only there aren't any pictures. This is truly a plain-Jane text reader that scrolls through the content in your ePub. But Stanza has two genuine claims to fame. First, it is an app that can be loaded on your iPhone or iPod Touch so you can read eBook content on your little device. In that world, eliminating pictures makes some amount of sense. Second, it has 16 different file formats that it can read and convert to/from. That includes Amazon Kindle. It could be a valuable tool for an intermediate stage of getting text into xhtml or even getting pdf to text. Don't assume everything will automatically come out looking as good as it should. You don't get great eBooks without working at it.

Don't forget Bookworm!

EDITED INFORMATION! Thanks to Liza Daly at Threepress Consulting for reminding me that I need to include Bookworm in this review. I had already uploaded my version of Alice and taken a screen-shot, but somehow missed including it in the list here. Bookworm is an in-browser reader for ePubs. That means that you do need to be on-line to use it. Through a simple interface, you browse for the book on your PC and upload it to your Bookworm library. Then just read. You can switch between serif and sans serif type with a nearly-infinite selection of type-size settings. Graphics and typestyles all adapt nicely. The width of the page changes with the width of the browser and can be set for a great line-length for your preferred type-size. From there on, it is just like reading in a browser: you scroll through the chapter. I have had some problem with reading multi-chapter eBooks. It is a great place, however, to quickly check your ePub code to see that it renders correctly, and it is very nice to have your eBook library backed up on-line.

Well, the end result was that I'm still most likely to read eBooks with Adobe Digital Editions if I'm on my PC or laptop. I had high hopes for Barnes & Noble Reader, but unless I can find an operator error that is causing it to lose lines of text and not wrap around graphics, no matter how beautiful the interface I'll have to take a pass. Since I often use a Sony Reader, I am also often in the Sony Reader, but I still find ADE to be easier to navigate in the long-run. Hope this exhausting comparison helps in your search for a great on-screen reading experience.

1 comment:

  1. You might want to consider Bookworm, which is a web-based reader that will use the full rendering capability of your browser. You do need to be online to use it, though.