iBooks on iPhone/iPod Touch – a bit disappointing

Apple released yesterday iOS 4, the new version of its iPhone operating system and in its wake iBooks, its eBook reading application.  Being a compulsive reader I set out to try the application just as soon as I could and was a bit disappointed.

I did my testing on an iPod Touch upgraded to iOS 4, which is a requirement of the iBooks application.  Upgrading to iOS 4 will take a while, so if you are interested in trying out iBooks for your self, set a side at least an hour and a half for the upgrade, up setup and customization. It took me pretty much that time to go through the process with roughly 12 GB of content on my iPod.

iBooks is a nice addition to the iPhone/iPod Touch family of devices, but its adaptation to the form factor could have been much better.  How so?  Well, for starters the application retains the book-like interface it has on the iPad, which might really good but isn’t very practical on the much smaller screen of the iPhone or iPod.

To illustrate what I mean I’ve added the picture below which shows the same book being viewed on the new iBooks and on the latest version of Stanza, a much more mature eReader for the iOS platform, that has been around for a couple of years.

Both applications are in reading mode in the screenshots above.  You should have no trouble noticing that you can see a lot more text on screen in the application on the right.  While iBooks might look good at a first glance, it wastes a lot of display area with things such as the title of the book your are reading and the page number, not to mention the strip at the top showing you that you are using an iPod connected to a Wi-Fi network and what time of day it is.  These are things I can really do without as I am pretty sure that I while I’m reading the book I know what I’m reading and that I’m holding an iPod.  The battery indicator is potentially much more useful as is the clock.  These, however, should only be displayed if I tap to bring in the navigation and configuration controls.

Wasting space on a screen which is already very small is criminal.  When I’m reading an eBook on my iPod I’d like to be able to do so as comfortably as possible, which among other things means that I want to see as much text as I can on screen at one time, without having to make the font too small.

iBooks did not recognize the cover for any of the commercial eBooks I had available in the system I used to synch content to the iPod, which might be the fault of the books themselves, but they all show covers perfectly on eReader from Barnes & Noble and on Stanza, so I would say that a little more effort could have been made there to make sure that the end user didn’t end up with a book case filled with books that all look the same.

Getting the books into the application requires adding them through iTunes.  While doing so can be nice when you have a large library of books on a single computer, it can be very annoying when you have the books spread out over several computers as I do.  As I mostly use Stanza to read eBooks I’ve grown accustomed to just sharing the books from the Windows or OS X application over the wireless network.  This works very well and you don’t need a cable to get your new content on the device.  Apple could have implemented something similar, within iTunes, but hasn’t yet.

The whole cable-needed thing to get your iTunes library content on your iOS device is getting pretty old by now and doesn’t reflect well on iBooks as it simply makes it harder to use than pre-existing applications such as Stanza.

The new version of iBooks which supports the iPhone and iPod also adds support for PDF documents on these devices and on the iPad.  While reading PDFs on the iPad should work okay, trying to do so on the smaller form factor devices is pretty much a waste of time.  It might be useful to be able to open a PDF document to check some bit of information, but trying to read a document formatted for a printed page or a large screen on the iPod or iPhone will only lead to frustration (and very quickly).  I don’t consider this to due any implementation problem with iBooks, which does a very good job at showing the PDF, but it does make the feature a lot less useful in these devices than on the iPad.

As the picture above shows, the PDF document opens perfectly with all its original formatting, but is quite useless for the user to read any kind of lengthy content as zooming will be required to any time the user want’s to check a portion of the text.

My very first impression was that the application was a bit sluggish when compared to other similar applications, but it actually opens books faster than most.  This not-so-good first impression was caused by the fact that the bookcase interface for the library comes up empty and takes a few moments to actually show any content.   Once the books are displayed however, opening the book for reading from the last read position was quite a bit faster than Stanza, the eBook reader I’ve been comparing to all the time.

Considering that Apple has had iBooks out on the iPad for about three months and that this is their first version for the iPhone and iPod I don’t think iBooks is a bad start, but it is only the start.  This application needs to mature a bit and adapt a bit more to the smaller screen of the iPhone and iPod Touch, but once it does it will be in a position to challenge the best eBook reading applications.

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