Everything You Need to Know About iBooks for Mac

It’s been nearly 4 years since Steve Jobs originally announced and demoed iBooks on the original iPad, marking Apple’s first steps into the eBook market — ones that’s cost Apple a DoJ lawsuit. iBooks is a great iOS eBook app, one backed by an extensive library of titles and great support for DRM-free ePub and PDF eBooks. The only thing that’s kept many of us from switching to iBooks for our book purchases is that there’s no way to read iBooks books on a Mac.

That ends today. With OS X Mavericks’ release, iBooks for Mac is finally a reality. It’s a best-in-class eBook app, though surprisingly is far less integrated into OS X than we would have expected.

A Great Mac Reading Experience

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iBooks is, just as on iOS, designed for reading and organizing your library of eBooks, including titles from the iBooks Store and DRM-free ePub or PDF books from your Mac. Everything from the iBooks Store, including interactive books created with iBooks Author, looks great in iBooks for Mac. You’ll find your book collections from iOS synced to your Mac via iCloud the first time you run the app, though it won’t automatically download every book — instead, just like in iTunes with music and movies, you’ll be able to download books when you want them, and remove them from your Mac to save space when you’re done reading if you want. Your reading position, bookmarks, and highlights from iOS will be synced automatically, even with non-iBooks Store books you’ve added manually to your library.

As an eBook library, iBooks gives a decent experience that’s plenty for most of our needs. You can see the author and title names in the library, search for book names, and organize your library into your own lists or switch to iTunes-style views of books by author, category, or in raw list view. DRM free eBooks you add manually to your library are treated just like your iBooks-purchased titles, though PDF eBooks are 3rd class citizens here that will open in Preview. There’s unfortunately no way to search across the complete contents of all your books, but that’s not too surprising.

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For the most part, iBooks for Mac works exactly like you’d expect, albeit with a distinctive UI design that’s entirely different from the original iBooks for iOS and seemingly points to Apple’s future Mac design style. It sports a simple interface that looks perfectly at home in today’s OS X, one that’s less heavy than iTunes and the App Store’s interfaces while more nuanced than the sparse redesign of Calendar and Contacts. Overall, though, it’s the most similar to iTunes 11’s design, with the new design of pop-over menus that seem to signify the new default Mac menu style. You’ll find the keyboard shortcuts and multitouch gestures you’d expect, without the distractions of iBooks for iOS’ signature page turning effect. It’s everything you’d expect from an iBooks designed specifically for the Mac in Apple’s new era of designing without skeuomorphic textures and animations.

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iBooks gives you a great reading experience, with the same beautiful eBook rendering that you’d expect — one that looks so much better than the way most books look in Kindle for Mac. There’s support for books with built-in fonts, or you can pick from iBooks’ selection of fonts, all of which are now included in OS X for your own use: Athelas, Charter, Iowan, Palatino, Seravek, and of course Georgia and Times New Roman. In books that were designed for iBooks with iBooks Author, though, you’ll find that you can’t change the font or background color. Instead, you’ll have the thumbnail view of all the pages in the book, and complete multimedia integration just like you’d expect with those books. And they work really great in iBooks for Mac, despite Apple’s warning that some iPad-centric book features might not work perfectly on the Mac — enough so that if you have some spare change, you should try picking up a featured Made for iBooks title just to see how much better iBooks books can be.

Beautiful books don’t make a reading app on their own, though — you still need research and sharing features, and iBooks delivers well on both fronts. You can copy up to 200 words from any book — a limitation that extends to DRM-free books — and iBooks will include a full citation and link to the book in your clipboard, something that’s nice for research. There’s support for sharing quotes from books with your OS X sharing services, 3-finger tap Dictionary integration, and VoiceOver support that’ll read a selected section of a book or, of all surprising things, the whole entire book if you want.

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But where iBooks really shines is its study tools. It has a very nice Notes section that shows all of your highlights, underlines, and notes from your open book, with the full highlighted text and your full notes visible in the notes sidebar. You can select a highlight to jump to that spot in the book, then quickly jump back to where you were previously reading, and can search just your notes and highlighted sections if you want, which makes it far more likely you’ll find what you’re looking for in a large textbook. There’s even a Study mode that turns your highlights and notes into flashcards that flip to reveal your note on the back to help you study everything you needed to remember from the book. It’s a feature that’s most directly aimed at students, but the notes sidebar itself — along with the option to open as many books as once as needed — is great for anyone doing research from eBooks. For once, eBooks are actually more useful for study than paper books.

There’s Just No Integration…

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The oddest thing about iBooks for Mac is that it’s an island to itself, unlike most Mac apps. You can’t search for and open books in your iBooks library via Spotlight or 3rd party search tools. There’s no Quick Look preview for ePub files in Finder, just an iBooks icon on the files if you use iBooks by default with ePub files. Preview, even, didn’t gain ePub support, even though it supports almost every other file you’d use by default on a Mac.

iBooks Store books are DRM locked, as would be expected, but so are iTunes Movies and they’re still visible to spotlight. But iBooks eBook files, which are saved in unzipped ePub format at ~/Library/Containers/com.apple.BKAgentService/Data/Documents/iBooks/Books, contain little data that’s readable without breaking their encryption — though there is an iBooks Library plist file that includes the book metadata info about every title in your library, including title, author, and complete table of contents, which would seem to be enough to expose the library contents to search and other apps. Perhaps we’ll see more integration in the future, but for now, iBooks will remain the most isolated built-in app on the Mac.

An Instant Best-in-Class Reading App

If you’ve already been using iBooks on iOS, then using iBooks on the Mac is a no-brainer. If you have a library of DRM-free eBooks, iBooks for Mac is also a no-brainer — it handily beats the other best eBook reader apps on the Mac. Anyone with an extensive Kindle or other eBook store library can’t just switch to iBooks, unfortunately, thanks to DRM, but if you read books from the Mac very often, it’s absolutely worth trying out iBooks for Mac and considering switching your purchases to DRM-free books or the iBook store just because the app experience is so much better.

It’s exciting to see how great iBooks for Mac is right now in the first version, and our only hope is that it gets more integrated into OS X going forward. For now, though, it’s still a great addition to the Mac ecosystem, one you’ve got to try out.


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