Free iPhone ebook readers head-to-head

With its crystal-clear screen and touch-screen interface, the iPhone (and iPod touch) can serve as a very capable ebook reader. In fact some say it’s currently the most popular ebook reader device out there.

This post compares 4 free iPhone ebook readers: Stanza, eReader, dBelement Reader, and Clickwheel Comic Reader.

Stanza

Stanza ebook reader: online catalogLexcycle’s Stanza lets you read DRM-free ebooks and other documents in a variety of formats, including eReader, Open eBook, Kindle, PalmDoc, HTML, PDF, and plain text. You can also purchase commercial ebooks from the Fictionwise book store right from within the app. In addition, Stanza provides access to a wide variety of paid and free ebook archives, such as Feedbooks, SmashWords, Project Gutenberg and various newspaper and magazine feeds.

You can also use the Stanza desktop app to convert various ebook formats so they work on the iPhone app. The app allows you to share opened ebooks with the iPhone via wi-fi, which means you can load any existing ebooks you own onto the iPhone.

Reading ebooks with Stanza is a pleasure. The text looks crisp and is easy on the eye (even after reading 115 chapters of Moby Dick!). You get a lot of control over text appearance, including text and background colours, font size, text alignment, line spacing and margin width. You can also choose from over 20 font faces.

Stanza ebook reader

(click image to enlarge)

You can read text in portrait or landscape mode by rotating the phone, and lock the screen rotation if desired. Flipping pages is as simple as tapping on the left or right side of the screen, while tapping in the centre brings up translucent toolbars for returning to the book list, displaying book info, and accessing bookmarks, Stanza settings, and the search function.

Search is one of Stanza’s weak points. It only lets you search within the current chapter, and merely highlights the search terms within the text – there’s no “Find Again” feature. Another minor irritation is that there’s no way to tell exactly how far you are through the book you’re reading.

Overall Stanza is an excellent ebook reader: intuitive, looks great, and has access to a wide variety of ebooks.

eReader

The main competitor to Stanza in the App Store is Fictionwise’s eReader. This is similar to Stanza in terms of its look and feature set. You can download books from different sources including the eReader/Fictionwise store, the free ebooks on ManyBooks.net, or any site that serves up books in eReader format. You can get your own content into eReader, although the process is somewhat fiddly.

eReader ebook readerAs with Stanza, book text is clear and easy to read. You can change font, text size and line spacing – though it doesn’t have as many options as Stanza – and also choose from predefined colour themes (or create your own). A nice touch is the ability to choose different themes for day and night reading; you can then activate the night theme by tapping the “I” icon in the toolbar. (It would be cool if it used the iPhone’s brightness sensor and/or the current time to identify “night-time”.)

eReader has an autoscroll feature, and you can vary the scroll speed by tapping and holding the book text. However it’s a bit jerky at certain speeds. Personally I don’t use autoscroll much as I find it’s either too fast or too slow – never just right!

By default, you swipe the screen to turn pages, and tap to bring up the toolbars. Personally I prefer tapping to turn pages; you can set this in the options, in which case you then swipe (in any direction) to bring up the toolbars. This took me a while to figure out (even though it’s explained right below the options!). Overall I prefer Stanza’s approach: tap the left or right side of the screen to turn pages, and tap the centre to bring up the toolbars.

Page turning is somewhat slower than Stanza, with a slight delay between tapping and turning.

Minor interface quirks mar the eReader experience slightly. Sometimes (seemingly at random) a blue pagination bar appears at the bottom of the screen, partially obscuring the text. And the floating toolbars are always in portrait mode, even when you’re reading in landscape mode:

eReader ebook reader: landscape mode

(click image to enlarge)

Another annoyance (bug?) is that the right-hand text margin is narrower than the left-hand margin, and altogether too close to the edge of the screen for my liking (though you can mitigate this by increasing the overall margin size in the settings).

eReader ebook reader: Table of ContentsDespite its drawbacks, eReader does have some plus points over Stanza, such as a better search (you can search the entire book) and the aforementioned colour themes. Rotating between portrait and landscape mode is smoother than with Stanza. You can also tap and hold on a word to look it up in a dictionary (if you have one installed) or highlight the word and optionally add a note. I also like the way eReader gives you a proper (page-numbered) table of contents in addition to user-defined bookmarks (Stanza seems to double up its bookmarks as an ad-hoc TOC).

eReader is a reasonably solid ebook reader and, if you like its additional features over Stanza (and can live with its quirks) it’s well worth a look.

dBelement Reader

dBelement’s Reader app is a bit different from the other ebook apps, in that it’s a Web app. This means that you don’t have to download it from the App Store and install it – just point your iPhone’s Safari at http://reader.dbelement.com to get started.

Reader’s interface is simple enough. Register and login to the site using a browser on your computer, then tap Add to Shelf to add a new book. You can then copy and paste a plain-text ebook (such as from Project Gutenberg) into the form, and upload. The book is then instantly available within the Web app on the iPhone.

dbElement Reader: ebook readerTo read a book, just tap its icon in the Bookshelf. The book is opened in a webpage so you can scroll up and down to read it. You can also tap at the top or bottom of the screen to scroll one page at a time. Tapping the centre of the screen brings up an options window letting you invert the screen colours, change font size, add a bookmark, or return to the Bookshelf.

The text is relatively easy to read, though I’d prefer the option of a serif font. Also plain-text books that contain hard line wrapping can look ragged when viewed in Reader, which is far from ideal.

Although you can rotate the iPhone to read a book in landscape format (this is Safari, after all), the tapping then doesn’t work correctly, which is a bit of a problem.

The obvious drawback of a web-based ebook reader on the iPhone is that you can’t access your books if you’re not connected to the web (particularly an issue for iPod touch users). What’s more, the free version only lets you store two books in Reader at any one time; if you want more than that then you need to subscribe and pay $8.99 every 6 months. Seeing as you can store hundreds of books within Stanza or eReader for free – without needing web access to read them – then this doesn’t seem like a particularly good deal to me.

However, if you want to read ebooks using a Web app – thereby avoiding the hassle of downloading and updating yet another app on your iPhone – then Reader is certainly an option.

Clickwheel Comic Reader

As you’d imagine from the name, Clickwheel Comic Reader is designed for reading comic books on your iPhone. To read a comic, tap its name in the Features list, then tap an episode and choose a download format. (If it’s a paid comic then you need to login with your Clickwheel username and password to purchase it.) A “Loading” message appears; unfortunately there’s no progress indicator so you might assume that the app has crashed. However, after a minute or two you should see the comic appear. It’s then simply a case of swiping left and right to view each frame.

You can view the frames in landscape mode, which is generally nicer than portrait:

Clickwheel comic book reader

I like the way the pages follow your finger as you swipe – it adds a sense of realism. It would be nice if some of the other readers did this.

Clickwheel is a simple app. There aren’t any options as such – you just download comics and read them. It would be nice to see a loading progress indicator or – even better – streaming downloads so you can start reading comics straight away.

Conclusion

The best iPhone ebook reader of the bunch in my book (sorry – terrible pun) is Stanza, though eReader is a close second. While eReader offers some nice additional features, Stanza feels more solid and usable, and has a wider range of download sources.

Previously, you needed to use eReader to read books from ereader.com but, now that Stanza can also download and read eReader books, this no longer gives eReader an advantage.

dBelement’s Reader makes a brave effort for a web app, but I can’t see any advantage over the other two ebook readers (and plenty of disadvantages), so it comes in at a distant third for me.

Clickwheel isn’t competing with the other three readers as such, as it’s designed solely for viewing graphic novels. Although simple, it does a reasonable job. It’d be good to see a wider range of comics available for download though.

[Versions reviewed: Stanza v1.7, eReader v2.0, Clickwheel Comic Reader v1.1.1]

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4 Responses to “Free iPhone ebook readers head-to-head”

  1. ninetwosix Says:

    I’ve tried all four, and have to say I’m stuck on Stanza. It’s been the least error prone, smoothest, and most universal so far. The built in online catalog links are good, and the link to Project Gutenberg earns them a + in my world.

  2. Matt Says:

    @ninetwosix: I agree on all fronts – although eReader has improved a fair bit with its 2.0 update, Stanza still leads the pack. It’ll be interesting to see what the next major revision of Stanza brings!

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