I started reading e-books back in the stones ages of plain text Gutenberg files on a handheld Palm device. My, how times have changed! Now, we can read on phones or tablets, in full glorious color—or on battery-efficient E Ink devices—books with sophisticated layouts and embedded multimedia. But those sorts of bells and whistles pale in comparison to the greatest wonder of the tablet age—cloud synchronization.
My favorite apps allow me to preserve my files for computer or off-line use, but powerfully make full use of my library across my different gadgets when I am in Internet range. What does this mean, on a practical level? Here are five examples. These are must-haves for e-book fans on the go. All are free to use (with some offering worth-the-dough upgrades), and can be accessed via computer, or on the Android or Apple device of your choosing.
Most reading apps from the big players (Kobo, Kindle, iBooks, Nook) offer a pretty standard feature set these days—highlighting, bookmarking, search features and so on. Most also allow you to sync your reading position, for books you buy from them, across multiple devices, so that you can start reading on your phone, pick it up later on your E Ink reader or tablet, and go back and forth between them. The Kindle lets you do all this plus sync personal documents (i.e., books you buy or download from other sources), too. And it gives you an email address that you can use to mail documents straight to your devices from any computer. I use it all the time to send books to the Beloved, who reads on a Google Nexus. I love that I can load stuff for him without having to hijack his device or rely on it being available for hooking up to a computer.
Plus, you can access your ‘archived items’ with just one tap. The other e-book apps I’ve used force you to either sync back to a computer to do that, or use a fiddly and deeply buried menu option (Kobo), or a third-party solution (iBooks, which can accept input from the Dropbox app). Kindle is just the simplest to use, period. Still missing: bookshelf organization. And, in the iOS app, an on-board store, which was removed at Apple’s request but is still present in the Android version. But overall, the simplest to use by a long shot.
This is, at its most basic level, a cloud-based backup drive. It installs a folder on your computer, and anything you put in that folder gets backed up. But you can do so much more with Dropbox. For instance …
• I have set up Calibre to store its stuff inside my Dropbox folder, so all my books get automatically backed up. That’s handy. But, handier still is that I can use the iOS app to open up these e-books and send them to various apps on my device. I can send PDF books I use for work to the GoodReader app, where I can annotate them with all sorts of useful information when I teach. For instance, I always import the play scripts for my Term 2 work, because the kids perform those for the parents, and therefore have to memorize their lines. I can use the annotation feature in Goodreader to note who has which line, and I color-code these as the children learn: When they can read the line unassisted, I change the color of their name from red to blue, and when they have it memorized completely, I change it to green. I can tell at a glance who needs more help, and the children are highly motivated to learn their lines, so they can progress through the levels.
• You can also send e-book files to iBooks, Kindle and other reading apps. So, if you prefer an app like Kobo, which makes it fiddly to download past purchases, you can bypass their clunky menu system and send non-DRM files to Kobo straight from the Dropbox app. You can also side-load into these reader apps without the use of a computer. Left something on your iPad and only have your phone with you? Just finished book one of a series while waiting at the dentist, and now you want to read book two? It’s just a Dropbox search away!
• I regularly make activity books for the classes I teach. If I make changes while at school, I can upload the new version to Dropbox via their Web interface, and it will be safely backed up in my virtual filing system at home when I get there. And the iOS app allows these documents to be shared easily, too—you can email right from within the app. For example, when the music teacher needed a copy of the lyrics book for our recent French concert, I could open the Dropbox app and send it to her while we were talking. And since my iTunes library stores inside my Dropbox folder too, I could even send her the songs!
Dropbox is generous with its free disk space, and you can earn more through referrals, tweets, Facebook likes, contests and other venues. You can also pay for a premium account. I’ve done this for a few years and don’t regret it at all. I have a ton of teaching stuff—media, PDF scans, resources that would take hours upon hours to recreate if they were lost—that I back up through my Dropbox folder. It’s worth a small annual sum to know it’s all backed up. It’s like insurance—you don’t need it often, but when you do, you are sure glad you have it! Weeks after I paid for my Dropbox upgrade, I lost everything in a hard drive loss. Thank goodness I had it all backed up, and it was just a few clicks (and then overnight, to download it all over Wi-Fi) to get it back again!
I could not figure out what to do with note-syncing app Evernote for the longest time, and then suddenly it clicked for me—I can use it to save webpages! Sometimes, I have something I want to save that’s too long to just remember, but too short to convert into an e-book for future reference—stories from online magazines, how-to articles, recipes, that sort of thing. I used to just bookmark these sorts of things and hope to come back to them later, but they always seemed to get lost in the shuffle. And of course, I could only access it when I was near my computer at home.
Enter Evernote. How did it take me so long to discover this thing? Just highlight the part you want to copy (or highlight nothing and ask it to save the whole page), and use the bookmarklet on your browser to instantly create a perfect taggable, searchable, editable copy. There’s even a bookmarklet hack for the iPad/iPhone browser! I can save blog posts (minus the comments, or with them if I want to). I can edit out the typos, and I can add a tag which makes it easy to sort them for later. It’s so handy! You can even make multiple notebooks if you prefer that method of grouping, and keep related items together.
On the go, there are apps for all platforms. I’ve only just began experimenting with the iOS app, and it’s pretty robust and full-featured. There are apps for the different computer platforms as well, and a Web interface for use on any machine. This app is my new favorite toy. The only downside? You need a live Internet connection to access all your stuff, unless you pay for a premium upgrade. I have to admit, I am a little tempted. This may be another app, like Dropbox, that’s worth the upgrade for me.
Pinterest might seem like an odd inclusion in a list of apps for book lovers, but that depends on your perspective. In some cases—straight fiction, for instance—a book is a fixed text you read from start to finish. In other cases, it doesn’t have to be. Think of decorating books, for example. Most of them are little more than pictures, with a bit of commentary. I have several of these books and they have maybe a hundred pictures each. My Pinterest ‘decorating’ board had quadruple that amount, with unlimited room for more. I also use it to save product reviews, recipes and other quickie stuff where pictures matter.
On the computer or in a mobile Web browser, this operates much like Evernote does, with a bookmarklet for clipping the part you need. But you can also use the app’s exploring features to find content from other people. You can ‘follow’ boards from other people and see what they add, and the app will also recommend items to you based on other items you pin. So it’s very easy to accumulate a lot of great content. And unlike an old-school book, you can add to your little index over time. I keep boards recipes, teaching and craft ideas, decorating ideas and so on. Any one of these would have been a shelf full of books in the old days!
Wunderlist is a brisk, easy-to-use little cross-platform list app. I use it to keep track of general to-do type stuff, but I also use it to keep a list of books I plan to read, magazines I haven’t gotten to yet, Netflix content that crosses my radar (the app’s ‘instant queue’ feature is limited; you can’t sort or group it in any meaningful way), and so on. It can be used via Web interface or mobile app, and your notes stay synchronized across any device you use. With this and the Dropbox app, I can be ready to go with the next to-read at any moment. Very handy!