Reading ebooks on the iPad

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The iPad is a great device for reading ebooks. The bigger screen is a big advantage over the smaller screen of the iPhone. On the iPhone I always used a small font and small margins to get as much text as possible on the screen. It worked pretty well, but it looked a bit crowded. Now on the iPad with a font that is more comfortable to read and margins that make the pages actually look like pages of a book there’s still more text on a page than on the iPhone.

The advantage of having more text on a page is simply a reduced amount of page turnings. It’s the same with ebooks as it is with normal books. Each need to turn a page introduces a brief distraction in the reading flow. This becomes very apparent when reading on a small screen like the one of an iPhone.

On the iPad there are many different apps for reading different kinds of ebooks. Since starting reading ebooks in 2003 - on a Palm Tungsten T - I’ve been buying ebooks on and reading them with the ereader app, which was called PalmReader back in 2003. Unfortunately ereader was not updated for the iPad, but fortunately Stanza is a nice alternative to the original ereader app. It can read DRM-protected ereader ebooks. It also provides a simple access to the free books from Project Gutenberg.

Apple’s iBooks app also looks nice and you can read any ePub book with it. It’s not limited to ebooks bought in Apple’s iBook store. I haven’t tried it with any DRM or otherwise protected ebooks, though. O’Reilly and The Pragmatic Bookshelf among others sell their ebooks without any such protection. Reading ePub books from those publishers works without any problems in the iBooks app. iBooks is a beautiful app with nice page turning animations. It looks nice and works great. It’s perfect for reading novellas and other kinds of books that mainly contain just text with an occasional image without any layout specialities. You can change the font style and font size and the text will be laid out in a way that it perfectly fills the screen. But that’s also the biggest problem with ePub when used for technical books. As a software developer I often read books with code listings and tables and images in them. I’ve never tried to read those kinds of books on an iPhone. The screen is just too small, but with an iPad there is enough room for listings, images and tables. It doesn’t work with ePub versions of this kind of ebooks. Listings just look weird. Probably reducing the font-size would fix it, but then there is a ton of other problems with ePub such as syntax hightligthing and special symbols pointing out interesting parts of a listing. And footnotes are displayed on the last page of a chapter.

So, the only solution seems to read the PDF variants of those ebooks, which are also available. PDFs are laid out with a specific font at a specific font size for a specific page size. It’s perfect for technical books although it takes away the possibility to change the font-size to one’s liking.

iBooks was recently updated with the ability to show PDF ebooks, but PDF-reading isn’t as good an experience as with other apps.

My current favorite is GoodReader. Earlier versions of this app were quite slow and changing from one page to the next was rather sluggish, but that got fixed in a recent update. So now it works fine. One of the greatest features of GoodReader is its crop tool. Pages in technical PDF-ebooks have normally big margins and and footers and headers containing information about the current chapter and page number that aren’t necessary when reading a book. With the crop tool you can crop away the parts that you don’t need and zoom into the content of interest. With a bit of cropping the books by the mentioned publisher are pleasant to read on the iPad.

Fast PDF has a similar feature but with an unnerving characteristic. Every time you change from one page to the next it zooms out of the currently zoomed in page, changes to the next page and then zooms in again to the desired portion of the page. That makes the app totally unusable for me.

Both PDF viewers have support for password protected files and both lack the support for word definition lookup, a feature nicely implemented in iBooks., where to just tap on a word, select “dictionary” from the appearing menu and are presented with a definition of the word from the dictionary included in iOS.

Currently I prefer buying ebook versions of technical books over their paper variant. It’s easy to take a dozen of them with you when travelling. So I have them available wherever I am whenever I have a need to look something up in them.

Reading ebooks just became lots better with the iPad.