I’ve already looked at the other two of the original “big three” iPhone e-book apps. The third of these apps is Stanza, the EPUB reader from Lexcycle.
Stanza has a lot in common with eReader. They’re both great apps for the iPhone, their reading models are similar, and Stanza even shares the ability to download and read eReader-format e-books—even those protected by DRM.
And like eReader, Stanza’s future in the iPad era is uncertain. Lexcycle COO Neelan Choksi said in a comment posted on Lexcycle’s forum on March 15th, “Currently, there is no work being done to customize Stanza for the iPad specifically.”
Lexcycle was acquired by Amazon in April, 2009—a year ago tomorrow, as it happens—and this may well be history repeating itself. Amazon allegedly prevented MobiPocket from releasing an iPhone version of its MobiPocket Reader app, and may be doing the same for Lexcycle with the iPad. Amazon doesn’t need competition from its own subsidiaries.
On the other hand, the iPad has a pretty decent EPUB reader in iBooks, but iBooks is not yet available for the iPhone (and, indeed, may never be available for older iPhones if it ends up requiring OS 4.0 to run). As I suggested in my iBooks review, it might simply be best to think of Stanza and iBooks as imperfect counterparts, each filling most of the functions of the other on its own platform.
Currently in version 2.1.1, Stanza supports HTML, rich text, PDF, DRM-free LIT, DRM-free MobiPocket, Palm Doc, and the IPDF’s “EPUB” format (also DRM-free), among others. It even licensed the eReader format, including the ability to unlock eReader DRM, from Fictionwise, giving it access to the same library of books as eReader, above (at least in theory; see below.).
And it’s free. The question is, do you get what you pay for?
(Portions of this review are recycled from my 2008 review of Stanza v1.6, with changes to reflect differences in the new version.)
In its settings screen, Stanza offers much the same font choices as Bookshelf, though in a straight “pick from list” format as opposed to Bookshelf’s fancy wheels (though it does make up for this by having each font name also be a demonstration of what the font looks like). It does not offer sizes in points, but as a simple slider from smallest to largest.
Plus, unlike some other readers, Stanza supports the “pinch” and “reverse pinch” methods of font shrinking and magnification—sort of. The method has changed from the one in effect when I last reviewed it, where it reflowed the text at the same time it changed the size. Now it simply zooms in or out, with the option to save the new font size—and only after you save it does it reflow the text.
Another gesture-controlled setting, added since my last review, is the ability to swipe up to brighten and swipe down to dim the screen. This can be disabled from the settings menu if you find you’re accidentally changing it too often.
Unlike any other e-book reader I can think of, the settings dialogue also allows setting a background image, and adjusting the opacity so it does not interfere with reading the text.
The screen rotates in three of the four directions (it used to be readable upside-down, with the home button at the top of the screen, too, but that ability seems to have gone); an option to lock it is found in the settings dialogue. The screen still goes blank with a “loading” symbol on it until the new screen can draw itself, but now it only takes about half a second instead of the several it used to.
Stanza has added a lot more control over text formatting since I last reviewed it. In the “Layout” section of the Settings dialogue, you can adjust alignment, hyphenation, margins, line spacing, paragraph spacing, and paragraph indentation.
It’s really quite impressive: if you prefer paragraphs to have a space between them, you can set it that way. If you’d rather they have paragraph indents, you can set it that way, too. In the end, the readability of your book on the screen is completely under your control.
That is fine as far as it goes. But where Stanza has its biggest problem lies in its desktop application, which is supposed to convert from other formats into the native ePub format that Stanza reads.
The last time I tried it, the automated Stanza desktop client just converted the bare text from alternate formats, and tossed out any formatting—including italic and bold emphasis in text. (I haven’t tried it in a long time, and didn’t feel like going to the trouble of downloading and reinstalling it for this review since I no longer use it anyway, so it could have improved since then.) It absolutely drove me crazy.
For reading native ePub and eReader format books, such as the ones available through Feedbooks and the publishers Stanza is dealing with or from the eReader bookshelves, it works just fine, with italics showing up where they ought to be. (Though eReader books have other problems.) But try converting anything else through the Stanza desktop client, and you’re in trouble.
However, this is no longer the problem it used to be; in fact, I haven’t used the Stanza desktop app either to convert or sync e-books in quite some time. Calibre does both conversion and syncing better than Stanza Desktop ever did. (I’ll write more on this in the “Adding New Content” section.)
Ease of Use
Paging backward and forward in Stanza is done by tapping the left or right sides of the screen. Tapping in the middle opens the menu bars. Although the directions of paging can be swapped, the sections tapped to do so cannot be changed to top and bottom.
Paging forward or backward is accompanied by an animation where the current screen of text slides to the left or right, similar to eReader’s. Unlike eReader’s animation, the animation speed can be adjusted from the settings screen.
Stanza’s menu bars are relatively simple. The top bar contains the usual “back” button, the title of the current section of the book, and a “book info” button. The bottom bar contains a combined table of contents/bookmarks listing, a “settings” gear, a “yin-yang” symbol to swap between day and night themes, a text search, and a “more” button that brings up a long list of possible actions. Beneath it is a slider to move anywhere from the beginning to the end of the book. (It used to apply only to the current section, but has since been changed.)
In my original review, I went on for several paragraphs about the unwieldiness of Stanza’s settings screen—which had, out of deference to Apple’s asinine user interface guidelines, been placed in the “Settings” app rather than being accessible from Stanza itself. Happily, all user-configurable settings were then made accessible from Stanza rather than forcing the user to go through the rigamarole of going to Settings and back to change them.
Stanza’s desktop counterpart is an application called the Stanza Desktop. You use it to convert e-books you want to read into the “ePub” format for loading into Stanza. Unfortunately, it cannot process bold and italic formatting. (And when I tried feeding it a PDF, it promptly unwrapped all sections into single long paragraphs.)
Once a book has been loaded into Stanza Desktop, it can be shared via Bonjour, and then grabbed from Stanza by looking for “shared books.”
Also not good is the limitation to sharing only one book at a time instead of an entire directory—undoubtedly because Stanza is actually an “ePub reader” that converts from other formats rather than read those formats natively like Bookshelf. Given that each book has to be converted before it can be shared, there may just not be any way around it with the Stanza Desktop app.
However, since writing these reviews, I’ve discovered the Calibre e-book conversion program, which also offers a “Stanza server” option. Calibre has no problem converting text emphasis from Mobipocket to EPUB, and also lets me share my entire catalog via my home LAN for Stanza to grab books from. (Unfortunately, I can’t grab the entire directory at once because it crashes Stanza. But at least I can grab any book I want.)
Furthermore, I can even combine Calibre with Dropbox to put my Stanza library on-line so I can reach it from wherever I need to. Clearly, Calibre is what Stanza users should be using instead of Stanza Desktop.
Stanza fares somewhat better in the “online catalog” category; it can access and download public domain books from Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, and Munsey’s, and do so fairly easily. Through these sites, Stanza offers access to an excellent selection of public domain books.
The Feedbooks catalog for Stanza used to offer a selection of magazines and newspapers, such as Wired and the New York Times, that were pulled in via RSS and converted into EPUB files for off-line reading with Stanza. However, in recent months this option has “mysteriously” disappeared. Presumably Amazon had something to do with it.
It also bears mentioning that Stanza’s interface with eReader bookshelves leaves a great deal to be desired. With eReader, you can buy something via the web browser (whether on the iPhone or on a computer) and then have the eReader client download it by going to your bookshelf, and it just works.
With Stanza, you have to tap on the “eReader” or “Fictionwise” option in the download catalog’s “Shared” section, which opens an internal browser window to the mobile site for the store in question, then tap on “Bookshelf”, then enter your userID and password, and then click on a book to download it.
Of course, given that Stanza is now owned by Amazon, and given what happened to the “Newspapers and Magazines” section, I suppose I should be grateful it even still lets you download eReader titles at all.
Apart from being harder to load, eReader titles don’t look quite as good on Stanza as they do on eReader. In particular, page and chapter breaks seem not to translate through to Stanza. It’s probably best just to stick to the free eReader app for reading those.
But if Stanza’s interface with eReader is fraught with complication, its interface for downloading books from the Baen Webscription or Free Library catalogs is dead simple. Just go to the “Shared” section, enter your userID and password, and the books are at your disposal.
You can only list Baen titles 30 at a time, but there is also a search box at the Webscription/Free Library selection screen that will let you pull up individual books without having to go through a large library to find them.
Stanza has also made deals with some publishers to provide free sample chapters or entire free e-books, through on-line catalogs. The selection will undoubtedly change from time to time; just look at their “free catalog” for more information.
Stanza also opened a special e-book store with Fictionwise, for purchasing eReader-formatted books. However, this store is a mixed blessing.
The Stanza Fictionwise store is entirely separate from the main Fictionwise store (though they somewhat confusingly just call it “Fictionwise Book Store” in their catalog menu), instead of being a separate interface onto the same store.
It doesn’t offer access to “Micropay,” Fictionwise’s store-rebate system, so people with significant micropay balances that they buy their normal Fictionwise books with won’t be able to use it in the Stanza store—not that they’d need to, since Stanza can, as noted above, read books purchased through the main Fictionwise and eReader.com stores with a little extra work. Nor does the Stanza store take PayPal, as do the others.
The reason for this is that the Stanza Fictionwise store is only administered by Fictionwise, who takes a cut of the money—it’s mostly a moneymaking operation for Lexcycle. How that’s going to change with the agency pricing model, I have no idea.
I would be inclined to recommend not using the Stanza store, even if you do use Stanza to read eReader books. Just load them from your normal eReader/Fictionwise shelves. The only possible reason to use it would have been to support Lexcycle financially—but now that it’s part of Amazon, there’s not much point in that.
Ironically, even though Stanza does not support iPad resolution, it is one of the apps that can be loaded via iTunes’s “Apps” screen file sharing section, like GoodReader and BookShelf. But I don’t get that screen with my iPod Touch, only my iPad. Go figure.
When it comes to reading EPUB files on iPhone, there’s Stanza, BookShelf, and…not much else to speak of. (eReader was at one time supposed to add EPUB capabilities, but then it got bought by Barnes & Noble.)
Like BookShelf, Stanza has improved considerably over the last year or so, killing lots of bugs and adding lots of features. If you prefer the pagination model to BookShelf’s scrolling model, and more importantly don’t want to spend $5, Stanza is the one for you.
Yes, Stanza looks lousy pixel-doubled on the iPad. And it’s doubtful that it will ever get a high-resolution iPad version. But just because you can’t use it on the iPad is no reason not to keep using it on the iPhone. As long as iBooks is not available on the iPhone (and possibly even after, depending on which iPhones it becomes available for), Stanza is awfully hard to beat for DRM-free EPUB reading on the iPhone.
Of course, it won’t read DRM’d books from Apple’s iBooks store, but the iBooks store is basically redundant anyway—you can get the same titles from other places for other iPhone-compatible readers. For DRM-free EPUB, Stanza is the way to go.