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Comparing ebooks: Classics, Stanza, and Eucalyptus on iPhone

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.

—–

Stanza app

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.

Classics app

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.

Eucalyptus appAbove: 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.

Couch surfing 2.0

This past weekend saw my girlfriend and I buying a couch for my bedroom – I’ve wanted a comfortable reading and napping platform in there for ages, but always thought an armchair would be enough – and looking silly in the IKEA parking lot trying to get the flat-packed-for-our-convenience boxes into the back of her car. Assembly only took an hour, and it has to be said that Lady Gaga’s album “The Fame” is ideal for such brainless activity, if nothing else. Certainly it can be good for nothing else.

Apart from looking very out of place, this couch (I hereby name it Karl Lagerfeld) has changed the two-point dynamic of my bedroom space. Before, I was either in bed or sitting at the computer. This meant that I’d be online most of the day, either working or wasting time on the internet. Often, there was nothing to separate the two.

But now, a third place for my ass exists, and that has changed everything. No longer confined to this desk, strapped down by continuous IM messages and the climbing number of Unread Items in my feedreader, I’m finding it possible to finally sprawl out and read a good book or watch a DVD. Nobody enjoys a film from a computer chair.

It was all good going already, and then last night I rediscovered Boxee.

An earlier alpha version, tried out during the pre-Karl days, didn’t really appeal to me. For those who don’t know, Boxee is “media center” software that gives you a big, simplified interface for accessing your media from across the room with a remote control. Very much like Apple’s built-in Front Row, or the one that comes with some versions of Windows. So when I was seated right in front of the computer, there was no need for it. From the couch though, it’s incredible.

With just the simple old 6-button Apple Remote that comes with almost every Mac, Boxee not only gives me access to locally stored video files (if you rip your own DVDs [or even download films] or TV shows, it downloads cover art and synopses from the internet to accompany them, very slick), it also plays content from providers like Joost and Hulu (US-only), as well as video podcasts like BoingBoing.TV and Rocketboom.

Another alternative is Plex (Mac OSX only), which I’m about to try out today. Both programs sprang from the open-source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) project.

It’s got me thinking that one day, I won’t even want a traditional desktop in my home. A large, wall-mounted high-definition TV with a wireless keyboard/mouse on the couch can simplify things to just a single location: workspace, reading area, and bed. Kinda like this guy.

Categories
General

My attractive industrial design

At the 3rd-party Apple store this afternoon, my girlfriend pointed out this iPod speaker dock, saying it was rather good looking. I was horrified, and then found it really funny. I suppose her bad taste explains why we’ve been together so long.

— Posted from my iPhone

Categories
Reviews

What’s the best place to host a blog?

In the past few days, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about what the “best” hosted blogging platform is (pure coincidence, my life isn’t that geeky). I’ve been using Google Blogger for this here outlet since 2002, with a short WordPress dalliance in-between that cost me a few weeks’ worth of posts when my hosting company suffered a database outage.

Blogger isn’t really so bad, but it IS bland and boring. In exchange for solid, Google-level stability, you have to put up with a small selection of dated templates and no easy way to customize your blog without some knowledge of HTML and CSS. But at least you can. Everything about the page can be changed, provided you know how. I’m quite familiar with the ways of the internet, but I can’t make this page look good to save my life. Adding widgets is quite easy, though, which gives it an advantage over the next service.

WordPress.com – a hosted blogging service, not to be confused with the WordPress.org blogging software for installing on your own server, offered by the same company – is very modern in comparison with Blogger, but doesn’t allow you to insert your own widgets and bits of code. That means no cute little Flickr slideshows, ads, or shoutboxes. Some plug-ins are offered by WordPress.com itself, but those are limited. Templates/themes are also limited to the ones included, with some minor tweaks to header images, colors, etc. but these tend to be very nice and good enough for most people.

Typepad costs money, unlike the first two choices, and I’ve always held it in high regard for the fact that they’ve managed to stay afloat in a sea of free competitors, and their marketing has been quite good. The site’s landing page boasts a large number of high-profile bloggers and professional journalists who swear by Typepad, and promises hundreds of expertly designed templates to turn even complete luddites into proud owners of beautiful sites in mere minutes. –– When I finally tried to sign up for the free trial this week, the reality was a complete disappointment. These templates are anything but modern and attractive. It’s hard to justify paying a minimum of US$5 a month when just a few more dollars can get you…

Squarespace. The things that are being done by this company put their competitors to shame. Sure, their prices are a little high, but I’ve yet to see the design and technology at work here being offered anywhere else. Many software packages say you can put a website together with virtually no HTML knowledge, but they’re still pretty hard to use. Squarespace lets you drag and drop content, switch layouts/themes with a few clicks, and do complicated CSS adjustments like changing the width of columns, the amount of leading (space) between lines of text, font sizes, etc., with sliders and other intuitive controls. All in real-time, so you can see the changes you’re making. If you want to get technical, it apparently lets you do that too.

Of course, there are a bunch of others like Livejournal and Vox (both free and owned by Six Apart, the company that offers Typepad), but I can’t recommend them for any serious use. They’re kind of hybrid blogging + social networking platforms, limited in scope and geared towards more ‘fun’ and socially oriented applications. You can’t use your own designs, and I don’t think you can export your data if you’d like to move to another service. Blogger, WordPress, and Squarespace make it easy to leave, always a good sign.

My conclusion is, if you can afford US$8-14 a month, Squarespace is your best bet. Their gallery of customers includes Mark Ecko’s personal blog and corporate site, Digg founder Kevin Rose’s blog, and a few other great-looking examples. If you’d rather go free, choose Google Blogger if you have some coding knowledge or would like to put ads and fun gadgets on your page. WordPress.com is a stylish, easy alternative for people who just want to start writing.