Reading books on little mobile devices has never been very pleasant. I first started reading ebooks ten years ago, on the black and green screen of my PalmPilot. I packed it with Shakespeare to avoid bringing a bag full of books to class. Later in university, I would do the same to get around bringing a suitcase of books back and forth every summer. I used my computer then, and much better looking PDF files.
On every new phone I’ve bought in the last ten years, I would try and find ways to read books on it, but in that era, it was like hoping your phone could tell you where you were on a map and how to get someplace else. Up until my last Nokia phone, which DID have GPS, the dream of comfortably reading books was still a distant one. Apps were clunky and coded in Java, could only access ugly system fonts, and were no better than opening up a text file in notepad. Proper formatting was secondary to getting words on a screen.
Despite these limitations, I maintained a fondness for the idea of mobile reading and ebooks. Many people I know tell me they can’t read off a screen. I think that has less to do with the idea of reading off a screen and more to do with the poor software that’s traditionally been available. Microsoft Reader on Windows, which I used to play with, was actually one of the best desktop solutions with its ClearType rendering technology. Of course, telling your mom she should sit in front of a computer to read her bedside novel isn’t going to win any converts. Handhelds are the key, but phone software just wasn’t up to it.
There are many advantages to reading an ebook on a modern mobile device. For one, you don’t need to have adequate ambient lighting. You can pretty much curl up on a couch in the dark. This doesn’t apply to e-paper devices like the Amazon Kindles, of course. You can carry hundreds in no more than the volume of a single paperback. If it’s a phone that’s already in your pocket, you can read in short bursts, anywhere. The main tradeoff used to be that the text would be ugly, which can really make a difference to the whole experience.
Of course, I’m here to tell you that’s no longer the case.
The iPhone, with its App Store full of quality 3rd-party software applications, has far more book reading solutions than any other phone had in the past. A company called Mobipocket used to dominate the mobile book reading software space on regular old phones and PDAs; but they were bought by Amazon which has its own Kindle software for iPhones now. One wonders what their plans for Stanza are.
I’ve tried just about all I could get my hands on. Most of them are not very good. Some stick to the old word processor paradigm and print text downwards on a scrolling page. I don’t think that’s the way to go. The best ones try to replicate the paper book experience, which is of course, the current best way to read.
Above: Stanza, by Lexcycle (now acquired by Amazon) [lexcycle.com] – Free
Stanza came first, and it was free. I won’t go into the details of everything that Stanza does, but it does a lot. You can buy DRM-ed books and you can download public domain books. You can even upload your own PDF files into it. The text rendering though, was a completely DIY affair. It started up with a vanilla black on white scheme, and if you wanted the words bigger/smaller, the line spacing and margins changed, or whatever, you would have to tweak it on your own. It didn’t come with presets to approximate professional results. In fact, the earliest versions of Stanza used justified text as a default preset. It looked awful. The latest versions have a feature where you can enable hyphenation, which tells the program it’s okay to break some long words up to avoid sentences looking like morse code. What you see above are my own presets, the result of much trial and error.
Above: Classics, by Andrew Kaz & Phill Ryu [classicsapp.com] – $0.99
Classics arrived on the scene a little later with a completely different approach. The selection of books was hardcoded into the app. You couldn’t add or take away anything. It was a small library of carefully curated choices, and the fact that each page was professionally typeset to look good was alluded to in marketing materials. Oh, and it had a flashy page turning animation. Subsequent updates to the app added new books, but that hasn’t happened in awhile. It debuted at the price of $2.99, which its developers claimed was a special introductory price. I suppose that meant it was especially high for early suckers, because you can get it now for just 99c. The much-lauded professional typesetting was a real disappointment for me. Text was larger than it needed to be, everything was poorly justified (huge rivers), and the text color wasn’t quite bold enough. Still, I loved the sound and look of the turning pages. Because every page was pre-rendered and fixed, none of these aspects could be changed by the reader.
I alternated between Stanza and Classics for awhile. I changed the settings in Stanza to keep my text left justified until the option to hyphenate appeared. I could never get the page color I wanted. The yellow you see above looks a lot darker on my iPhone’s screen, which works well enough.
Above: Eucalyptus, by James Montgomerie [eucalyptusapp.com] – $9.99
Eucalyptus blows them both out of the water, but there’s always a catch. It only accesses public domain books on Project Gutenberg, which Stanza can do in addition to opening other files. There are about 20,000+ texts accessible through the PG library.
That’s it. That’s the only negative apart from the price. I don’t consider not having the ability to turn your page color a sickly red and your text color Christmas-green to be a drawback. I love it when somebody who obviously knows his business, a professional of some sort, calibrates something so I don’t have to. If you’re the type who tries to fix his own air-conditioning or calibrate his own plasma TV, then perhaps you will enjoy whipping Stanza into shape. I didn’t.
Even an illiterate can see that Eucalyptus has nailed the look of a book on a small screen. It even has a much better page flipping animation than Classics, and does it in real-time 3D. You can manipulate the softly flowing paper of a page in mid-air the same way you might a real page. You can’t do that in Classics. To maintain control over its presentation, Classics seems to store every page as some sort of image file (it’s nearly 50MB in size with about 15 books in it). Eucalyptus renders plain text with its own proprietary algorithms to make those beautiful pages on the fly. Because of that, you can change the text size, but not the typeface (it looks like Times to me turns out it’s the open-sourced Linux Libertine).
I want you to indulge me and do a little experiment. Scroll back up and read the first paragraph, slowly, in each of the screenshots. Then come back here.
If you’re like me, you would have noticed the big gaps between words in Stanza, and the need for hyphenation, which slowed down your reading/comprehension speed a little. The overall feeling you got after reading it like that was probably something along the lines of “meh”. Classics, on the other hand, somehow encourages reading faster, and skimming. I think it’s the larger type, which also serves to soften the gaps… but you’ll see gaps aplenty on other pages in Classics. The rhythm of the sentence is wrecked. It goes from a slow, three-part opening line that sets the tone for the book to come into something rushed, and not fully digested. When you read it in Eucalyptus, it should be something of a revelation.
With regards to Stanza: I don’t like having too many choices, because they encourage me to fiddle instead of just read. And if it’s not done quite right, like in Classics, I just groan and try to make do. I’ve read quite a few of the books in Classics. But when ebook reading is done really, really well, like in Eucalyptus, then I can see a bridge clearly stretching from those days spent squinting on a dim, muddy screen in English class, all the way to the present, and it makes me really glad that now other people might finally have reason to get into this.