Reading is a topic that a lot of us get fired up about, mainly because we all do so much of it. It’s a field many of us are very experienced in. When people make decisions about buying a hardcore or a softcover book, they’re using their experience to make that choice. That’s why talking about the perfect reading experience is so tough — no two people have the same tastes.
That’s my word of warning as I enter into this: the following article, even more so than usual, is nothing more than my opinion. But let me be the one to tell you, and I hope you’ll agree, my opinion is certainly the most correct one. I’ll start by saying that the new iBooks for iOS 7 is terrible. Whereas before, choosing between iBooks and Kindle was tough, the decision just got a whole lot easier. Quite simply, I’m about to tell you why I prefer the Kindle experience over iBooks.
When it comes to the iPad and iPhone, I’m of the earnest belief that Kindle has a much more interesting design than iBooks now has. With iBooks, Jony Ive and his software team have focused on reducing the software to its barest element: the words. While I admire their attempt to do that, and the typography is beautiful and the words look great, I’m pretty sure every other part of the app — especially how it works, which we’ll get to shortly — is atrocious.
Take, for example, the Library view. On a Kindle, this has only ever made half-sense. Your book covers can either appear in a grid, which is odd because they look like they’re just floating, or they can be sensibly displayed in a list with an icon of the book’s cover beside it. At least lists make sense.
iBooks offers nothing of that sort. Now, books are presented the same way in iBooks the same way magazines are presented in Newsstand. They float on sort-of-visible shelves that don’t look anything like real shelves. Instead, the shelves look eerily similar to the bead-blasted aluminum Jony Ive’s industrial engineering team is obsessed with throwing onto every product Apple makes these days. But we don’t put books on aluminum shelves — well, we usually don’t.
iBooks for Mac has a slightly different story. The iBooks app is, for the most part, beautifully designed. The books still look like they’re floating, but the option to display them in a list is available (and there are no gaudy faux-shelves anywhere in the Mac app). Kindle on a Mac, on the other hand, is abysmal, unless you use the Kindle Cloud Reader.
The Kindle Cloud Reader is a web app that works great in any modern browser, and it looks very similar to the mobile apps. (This comes with the added perk that if I ever lose my mind and decide to purchase a Chromebook, I can still read my Kindle books there.) I don’t necessarily prefer the Kindle Cloud Reader over iBooks on the Mac, but I personally don’t read too often on my Mac. It’s a handy-to-have, but not a must-have for me. So it doesn’t bother me as much. If you’re a Mac-exclusive reader, then I’d strongly consider iBooks.
Design: How It Works
Of course, Apple taught many of us that design isn’t just about how it looks — it’s about how it works. So far, I’ve been talking mainly about the experience in choosing a book from a Library, but I haven’t spoken much about the functionality of the apps while actually reading.
This is where there are a ton of differentiators. iBooks uses a nicer font, I think, than Kindle does, where your best font choices on modern screens are Georgia and Palatino. iBooks doesn’t have any font options, but it doesn’t need any. (The Kindle Cloud Reader doesn’t allow you to pick a font either.)
Their features nearly match each other: highlighting, note annotation, bookmarking — the list goes on. (The Kindle app has some inconsistent behaviour regarding its bookmarking, but that’s an issue for another article entirely.)
There are some additional features that Kindle users have access to. Most of them are social, and if you’re like me (and you hate how social networking has pervaded our entire lives and feel like you can’t read a book on the toilet in peace), you’ve probably turned those features off already and have long since forgotten about them.
For the most part, though, this means that the little things really add up. iBooks’ lack of an interface makes it difficult to navigate on an iPad, while the Kindle app feels more intuitive. Page flips are a great example.
If you’ve got page flips turned on for the iPad or iPhone Kindle app, you can place your finger anywhere on the screen and move it to the left or right. You’ll see the page begin to turn. This interaction lets you know what you’re doing. If you move your finger back to its original starting point, the page will return to its original position. If you don’t, or you complete the flipping motion, it will flip. When you’re flipping a page, all the Kindle’s controls disappear. It’s just you and your book. Better yet, the page follows the movement of your finger. You can pull a page towards the bottom or top of your device and watch it curl.
The iBooks app used to function similarly. Markedly, it wasn’t the only difference between the old and new iBooks app. The app used to come with a background that, while reading, looked like book pages and a book’s back cover. Now, the stark white of the app is so dull as to be completely uninspiring.
Tapping on a page flips to the next one, but the only way to flip a page like you can in the Kindle is to drag from the margin of the page. You can swipe in the middle of the page, but unlike the Kindle app, that won’t appear to do anything. When you release your finger, the page will flip. This is supposed to replicate the print experience. Reaching for a margin on your phone or tablet is supposed to be like reaching for the margins of a paper book to flip the page. That being said, the experience doesn’t translate well. It’s a skeuomorphic interaction, and I think it’s far worse than skeuomorphic visual design.
That doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, but it gets really annoying if you’re reading a book with breakfast with your iPad in landscape. It means that you can only swipe on approximately 5% of the screen to turn a page, or you won’t be sure you’re doing it properly. There’s no way to understand that iBooks knows what you want to do.
Finally, the other thing that’s really irritating: when you do manage to flip a page in iBooks, the status bar doesn’t flip with it. It doesn’t disappear. Your page flips over it — or beneath it. I don’t know which it does, but the status bar remains static, and it doesn’t look natural. It distracts you from the experience.
The Little Things
This all doesn’t sound like much, I know. In fact, I have no complaints about the Mac app in this regard. It “just works” exactly how you’d expect, and if Apple could achieve the same sterling result on an iOS device, it would be a far better reading suite. But the Kindle app seems to have a better eye for details. And when you’re reading a book, nothing matters more than the little details.
The little details are what set great print jobs apart from poor ones. It’s why some people prefer to buy a hardcover over a paperback, and vice versa. The little details mattered in print because they tangibly affected readers — you could touch a book and feel the difference.
Reading on a screen isn’t entire similar, but it should feel like a similar experience. It requires the same attention to the minor details. All you want to see is the content on your page. You don’t want to be distracted wondering how page flips work, or if you’re going to be able to easily find the book you want to read next. Book-reading apps should be focused on making it as easy as possible to find what you want to read, and make the reading experience as close to print as possible. With high-resolution devices like modern iPads and iPhones (and even MacBook Pros with Retina displays), that goal is possible.
Now, I don’t think either app has the experience perfectly right. The Kindle app’s menu is a little too dark for my liking, but at least it isn’t drenched in whatever aluminum-coloured Kool-aid Jony Ive adds to his protein shake in the morning. Choosing a book to read in the Library in both apps could be a better experience.
But if there’s one thing that Jeff Bezos and his team understands, it’s readers. Amazon started as a bookstore. Those people are obsessive about making the best-quality reading devices on the planet. It shows when you’re actually using a Kindle app to read, and not just to stare at the draperies. I think Apple could learn a thing or two by using their apps.
I didn’t mention Kindle cross-compatibility with other operating systems (or the e-readers) because it’s largely irrelevant. I’m sure that most people reading this article, especially you, will be aware of Kindle’s proprietary format and its limitations. Many of you will probably already own a Kindle device, whether you ever use it or not. You’re all smart people, so it shouldn’t come into play.
It used to be that iBooks was a serious contender on iOS, and now it’s a serious contender on Mac. But just as Apple finally brought the experience to Mac, they forgot to take care of the reading experience on iPads and iPhones. iBooks is representative of everything that’s wrong with iOS 7 and nothing that’s right, which is a shame because there’s a lot of potential here to do something great. Kindle has leap-frogged ahead, and it’s not because their iOS 7 update was amazing (although it was excellent). Kindle has leaped ahead because Apple has stumbled. For now, I say without hesitation there is almost no drawback to using the Kindle lineup of apps, and I highly recommend them.