Web/iPhone/iPad e-book app review: Ibis Reader
March 8, 2011 | 1:44 am
Paul linked to a positive Project Gutenberg review of Ibis Reader a few months ago, but it first came to my direct attention when I tried out Jolicloud and discovered what it was: a web-based EPUB reader. It was an interesting idea, I thought, but I wasn’t sure what it was really good for. But a couple of days ago, my perspective changed.
One of the great things about Baen Webscriptions and the Free Library is that they allow people who have access to Baen e-books to read them on-line as well as download them. Not too many other sites do that yet. Amazon is working on it with its “Kindle Web”, but doesn’t seem to be there yet. And there’s no equivalent for Nook, or a lot of other places that sell e-books. And lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in a place where I have web access but can’t use an e-book reader, and there are certain non-Baen e-books I’ve been wanting to read to pass the time there.
Enter Ibis Reader. Not only does it allow you to upload e-books to it from your hard drive, but it can also access ODPS catalogs—such as the ones you can make your Calibre catalog into with Calibre2odps and host on Dropbox. Which means I suddenly have access to any e-book I can convert into unencrypted EPUB form, from anywhere on the web.
I’m a little less impressed by the iPhone/iPad mobile web app version of Ibis Reader (it also works on Android, but I couldn’t review it there), but that’s all right—I have better dedicated readers for there. What I didn’t have before, and where Ibis really shines, is a cloud/browser-based EPUB e-book reader. I can see myself getting a lot of use out of that.
The web version of Ibis has generally spartan configuration abilities. The only things you can really change are whether to use a serif or sans serif font, and increasing or decreasing the font size. As with some other EPUB reading apps, the decision of whether to left- or full-justify the right margin is entirely up to the way in which the EPUB is formatted, which is why I use Calibre to left-justify all newly-purchased EPUBs I can as a matter of habit.
You can also choose between a regular and a “No distractions” display, which removes the website border and allows you to narrow the width of the chapter display—something I find very useful, since it’s easier to read a narrow column of text on the computer screen. When I’ve got the column at the right width and font size, I have no trouble reading it at all.
One minor annoyance: Ibis Reader doesn’t show the cover art for the books in the reading interface itself (though it does show thumbnails in your book catalog list). I’m not sure whether that’s due to a limitation of the version of OPDS used in the Calibre2opds catalog or what, but it’s annoying. I should try regenerating my catalog with compatibility set to OPDS rather than Stanza and see if that fixes it. Edit: Doesn’t seem to. Even when I upload the EPUB directly from my HD, it still doesn’t show me the cover. Annoying, but then I’m reading it for the text anyway.
The iPhone and iPad versions are easy to read textually, too, if you set them to the Georgia font that I feel is the best reading font for iOS apps. (The iPad version does not offer the facing-pages-in-landscape option available in iBooks, alas.) The problem with them involves their overall clunkiness to use, which I cover in the next section.
Ease of Use
The simplicity of the web version of Ibis means that there’s really not much that’s easier to use. You just decide what font size you want and how wide you want the window, and off you go. It does lose a few points for often jumping to the end of the next chapter rather than the beginning when you click the “next” link to move forward, but it’s easy enough to press the “home” button.
On the iPad, the mobile version of Ibis runs pretty smoothly, but it really slows down on my first-generation iPod Touch. As a web app, it has to grind away a little when you turn the page or rotate the device. On the iPad, this is essentially instantaneous, but on the older iPod Touch it takes about a second for each new page to redraw. (Presumably it would take less time on the faster newer-gen devices.) That can be seriously distracting when you’re trying to read.
Once nice feature is that when you load a book you were reading in another instance of the app, it asks you if you want to continue from where you left off. It doesn’t always work, but it’s when it does, because there’s apparently no way to jump directly to any particular part of a given chapter save by paging ahead to get to it. You can see what page you’re in, but there’s no way to jump ahead.
Unlike the scrolling web version, the mobile app uses a page-turning paradigm, which means each time you turn a page the screen has to take the time to redraw before you can move on again. On the iPad this is less of a handicap, since the pages are bigger and the turning is faster, but if you’re halfway through a long chapter on the slower iPod Touch you’re going to be a while.
One nice feature that the iPod Touch version has is that, on the book’s info page, below the table of contents, there is an option to export the book into the much-less-clunky Stanza. Even though Stanza has its own OPDS import option, if you open a book in Ibis and find you’re just too frustrated with the slowness to go on, it’s a nifty escape clause, faster than going and fetching it on your own. Weirdly, the iPad version doesn’t have this option, even though Stanza is fully available in a high-resolution iPad version as well.
The web version offers a number of methods for getting e-books to read. It comes with links to four Feedbooks subcatalogs (Popular Public Domain, New Public Domain, Popular Originals, New Originals), the ability to add your own OPDS catalogs (if you’re adding a link to your Calibre Dropbox catalog, use the URL that ends in the “.XML” suffix, not the .HTML), and the ability to upload an EPUB file directly from your own computer into your library.
Once you’ve got a library set up, you can go in and browse it as usual, and add any titles you want to your Ibis library, one at a time. Once they’re in your Ibis library, you can read them with the web interface, or download them into the mobile apps.
Oddly, you can’t browse or import from your ODPS catalogs using the mobile apps; you’re limited to what you’ve imported into your library from the web—or else, somewhat pointlessly, to e-books for which you can type in the exact URL. (Who’s even going to know the exact URL of any given EPUB book, let alone be able to type it on an iPad?) However, you can still go in from Mobile Safari and import library titles that way, even on the small-screened iPod Touch, if you have a net connection.
It’s worth noting that the iPad and iPhone apps (and presumably Android app as well) do not have to be connected online to read e-books they’ve already downloaded. (They do require a 50-megabyte app framework download to your device the first time you run them to make this possible.) This makes me begin to suspect that, at least for future iterations of the iPad (especially the twice-as-fast iPad 2) and iPhone, an HTML5 web app could well be an answer for Amazon and other e-book vendors to Apple’s 30% in-app purchase tax after all. (Older iterations, like my 1st-gen Touch, will probably still have the same clunkiness issues with such an app as they do with Ibis—but almost nobody designs current apps for older hardware, alas.)
As far as I’m concerned, the mobile apps are pretty much a sideshow at this point. Stanza and iBooks work much better for EPUB reading on iPhone and iPad respectively. But the web version is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. It works well and does everything I need, and gives me a meaningful way to interact with my Calibre catalog on full-sized computers. That’s awesome.