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Screenshot_2014-06-17-10-57-52I hadn’t paid much attention to Google Play Books before. I’d installed and even paid for readers like Aldiko and Moon+ (TeleRead review), and snagged a couple freeish ones like UB Reader, but Play Books just sat in my app drawer, unused, like most of the pack-in Google apps. But when I came across this Lifehacker piece calling it “the best e-reader for Android,” I figured it was worth trying out.

And darned if I don’t by and large agree. Offering a simple and easy-to-use reading interface and cloud reading-position sync with all books, Google Play Books is a great reading experience—and not only is it free, it’s probably already on your Android device. (Or you can download it from iTunes, if you’ve got an iOS device.) You have only to start using it.

Keeping It Simple

For starters, the interface is very minimalistic. There are top and bottom status bars that you can summon with a tap on the screen but stay out of your way when you’re reading.

There’s a display options panel, produced by tapping on an “Aa” icon in the top bar in the tablet version or “Display options” from the three-dot menu on the phone version. It includes options for theme (choices are Day, Night, and Sepia), typeface (there’s one sans serif font, Sans, and four serif, Serif, Merriweather, Sorts Mill Goudy, and Vollkorn), text alignment (left or full justified), brightness, font size, and line height. There is also a settings menu with options for things like page-turn effects, PDF uploading, and reading aloud. The bottom status bar has a table-of-contents button and a slider for adjusting position in the book. And that’s that.

Screenshot_2014-06-17-10-57-24Screenshot_2014-06-17-10-56-57The text display is eminently readable. My favorite font is the standard “Serif” one, though the others all look legible enough that I wouldn’t have any eyestrain problems reading a book in them—there aren’t any of the really weird choices that made you wonder why on earth they were even included, as I’ve seen in some past e-reader apps. As with iBooks, you can read a single page in portrait or two in landscape (at least on a tablet-sized screen; the smartphone version still keeps one column, as seen below).

The app can also read books aloud, using the same female voice that reads you search results if you do an “OK Google” voice search. It’s certainly crisp and understandable, especially if you use the network-connection-required high-quality voice, but as with any speech synthesizer no matter how good, the timing and stresses are off just enough to make it a little harder to understand than an actual human reader.

Screenshot_2014-06-17-11-19-32Screenshot_2014-06-17-11-18-20Some might consider the paucity of setting options a disadvantage compared to more feature-full apps like Moon+. There are no way to customize themes, no way to select additional fonts, no way to adjust the margins, and so on. But on the other hand, if the default settings are good enough, why worry about it? The Day and Night themes are clean and crisp black-on-white or white-on-black, and sepia is a nice callback to the main theme from the old Fictionwise eReader app (RIP). The fonts are great, the margin is all right, and the interface works—and it’s not so complex as to be confusing, which is a problem Moon+ has.

It also doesn’t have another problem I found in Moon+ Reader. I like a lot of things about Moon+, but one thing I can’t stand is that it completely eliminates blank lines left as section breaks. Whether you’re reading it with blank lines between every paragraph or no line and an indent, there’s nothing to indicate when one section ends and the next begins if your e-book breaks with a blank line (and most of mine do). I’ve asked online, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around this. So I’m thinking that I’ll probably just skip Moon+’s aggravation and go with Play Books in the future—it preserves those blank lines just fine.

I did notice a couple of weird bits on an e-book I compiled myself in Scrivener—places where it started a new paragraph at an italicized word, or even inserted a page break that wasn’t there in the file. I double-checked the same e-book file in Adobe Digital Reader, and it was fine there. But that’s a small price to pay for proper section separation.

Library Management

As with most Google cloud apps, media for the app is stored primarily in Google’s cloud. You can go to the Google Play Books page and click an “Upload Files” button, then either drag and drop or browse to DRM-free EPUB files on your computer. (Unlike Aldiko, Play Books doesn’t handle Adobe DRM. Of course, if you’ve got Calibre, you’re already halfway to solving that issue.)

By the same token, you can open any EPUB or PDF file on your tablet and get Android’s context menu full of things it can do with the file, and find “Upload to Play Books” right there waiting for you. About the only thing you can’t do is open local files from within the Play Books app itself; you have to use something else to add them to the library first.

Origin 6172014 113454 AMOnce the file is uploaded, your library syncs down to the reader on your tablet, or you can even read it directly on the web site with a cloud reader that shares a decent resemblance to (and reading position sync with) the one on the tablet or smartphone—something else that most other Android e-reading apps can’t offer. And, as you might expect, you get reading position sync with all your books, not just ones you buy from the Google Play store—definitely a one-up on Amazon here. It also doesn’t cost extra, like the cloud sync option from the freemium Mantano reading app (TeleRead review).

You can store up to 1,000 EPUB or PDF books in Google’s cloud, and they can be up to 100 MB each. (Hey, even that 28-megabyte 15-volumes-in-1 Wheel of Time e-book omnibus from the Hugo voter packet will fit!) Of course, this will present a problem for some of us. When I ran a file-find on my Calibre library directory, I found I have 1,129 EPUB files so far—and I’m not exactly stopping buying e-books! Unlike with Google’s cloud music service, there doesn’t seem to be an option to purchase more e-book storage. Oh well. It’s not like it’s a hardship to load files into the reader as I need them from my own cloud library.

I can’t do it directly, though. Play Books doesn’t use the OPDS library system that Moon+ or Aldiko will, so pointing it at my Calibre2OPDS-on-Dropbox library is right out. However, there are a couple of convenient little workarounds.

Screenshot_2014-06-17-11-28-58Firstly, folks who use Calibre to sync their books into an “E-books” directory on their device can simply use a file manager to navigate to the book they want in that directory and tap on it, and Android’s context menu happily pops up, including an option to upload it to Play Books. By the same token, if you have the Dropbox Android app and keep your Calibre library there, you can navigate into the library in the app, tap on the EPUB file, and Bob’s your uncle.

Oddly enough, you don’t get this option when you tap on a link directly to an EPUB book from Chrome. You have to tap-hold, choose “Save Link,” and then open your “Downloads” app and tap on the EPUB from there. I suppose the uploading mechanism requires access to the file locally to be able to do it; you can’t just feed it someone else’s URL.

Conclusion

Well, I can’t say I expected that. A better e-reading experience than apps for which I paid money turned out to be the one that was not only free, but that I already had and had just been ignoring. I’m going to be reading a lot more e-books via Google Play Books now, I can tell you.

 
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