I’ve been meaning to write something about long-form reading on the iPhone for a while now, and the recent release of Amazon’s Kindle app prompted me to do so. I’ve been using Stanza as an e-reader on the iPhone for a while now, and it’s got some good and bad features compared to the Kindle. So I thought I’d do a side-by-side comparison.
Here’s a quick breakdown. Longer, if not deeper, thoughts below.
INSTALLATION: Tie – both are free, quick App Store downloads
PAGE TURNING: Stanza wins for navigation (tap rather than swipe)
READABILITY: Stanza wins, with a vastly more customizable interface
BOOK CATALOGS: Tie – Stanza has many more free books (through Project Gutenberg); Kindle has an edge on new books
BOOK PRICES: Kindle wins. Most books are $9.99, while new releases for Stanza can range up to full hardback price.
EASE OF IMPORTING BOOKS: Stanza wins – you download books directly through its interface. Kindle books have to be bought on Amazon.com, then loaded onto your iPhone.
Stanza is made by Lexcycle and is mostly meant to be an iPhone reader. There is a Stanza desktop installation, which allows you to read books on your PC or Mac and also to export them for the Kindle, but the iPhone app works fine even without the desktop install. On the phone, Stanza interfaces directly with several online catalogs, including free libraries from Random House, Harlequin and Feedbooks, and perhaps most importantly with Project Gutenberg, which offers something like 27,000 free e-books out of its library. Most of those are classics, as you’d expect, and it can sometimes be tough to tell which version/edition you’d prefer. On the other hand, they’re all free, so you might as well download them — you can always delete them later. To download a book, just select it from the library and hit “Download;” a progress bar shows you how fast it’s going, and it will hit your phone in a few seconds.
Buying books is a little more complicated, because you’re interacting with more than one store. On Fictionwise, for example, you can buy books through the iPhone catalog, but you have to browse out to the Fictionwise catalong, then re-enter your credit card info to unlock the book once it’s downloaded/bought.
You can also import e-books from other sources into Stanza. I did that with books from one of my favorite sci-fi authors, David Weber, who offers many of his older books in several digital forms. I got a digital copy of about 20 of his works, imported them into the Stanza desktop app and then synced it with my iPhone. The sync process is supposed to be simple if you’re on the same wireless network, but I had to create a small private network to do it (I was experimenting with it at work, so the university firewall probably played a role). It took a bit of trial and error to see what version of the books worked best, but I finally figured out that the .lib files saved chapter markers and art.
Reading books on the Stanza is a surprisingly nice process. The app divides the iPod screen into three sections (vertically oriented). Tap on the left to “page turn” back, tap right to “page turn” forward or tap on the center to get the tools & settings menu. You can reverse that in the “settings” menu (I suppose that’s useful for right-to-left readers). If you switch the phone’s orientation, the text switches too, so you get really wide columns. Or you can lock that down so that it won’t arbitrarily change.
The setting menu is completely granular — you get a good choice of typefaces, colors and backgrounds, or you can reverse white type out of a colored background. I learned that stark white isn’t the best for reading, because I do a lot of reading in bed at night and it burns my eyes after a while. You can choose left or right ragged or justified type. And the font size, letterspacing and line spacing are infinitely adjustable with sliders. You can even choose “slide” or “page curl” animations for page turning.
Pages load instantly but you generally have to wait for a second or two to load a new chapter, depending on the size (see below). My assumption is that it keeps the chapters in RAM for ease of page-turning.
The app remembers your five last read books, and will even let you edit the cover art and title of the books. That came in handy in organizing the 15 David Weber books I had downloaded — I was able to alter the name of each one to add the number it was in the series.
The drawback, at least for the books I read, was that the app didn’t seem to handle long books particularly well. The David Weber series in particular have a lot of chapters, and Stanza seemed to count to 39 and then barf — I wouldn’t get chapter markers after that. So instead of a nice 30-“page” chapter, I wound up reading 700 or 800 “pages” at a time, which took considerably longer to load. And nonstandard characters seemed to throw the book — for example, text inside of carats (< or >) would invariably result in the book thinking that the text inside of it was supposed to be tagged. Of course, the tag never closed. The result was that I read a lot of books mostly in italics, which wasn’t much fun. I’m not complaining, because I got those books for free, but it would bug me if that happened with something I purchased.
For a lot more on Stanza, you can check out the Stanza FAQ right here.
The Kindle app handles downloading and reading a little differently. It’s “simpler” to use in a sense, but the lack of control was frustrating, too. Granted, it’s a port to make editions intended for a proprietary e-reader work on the iPhone. But it still leaves some features to be desired.
Getting books on the Kindle is surprisingly difficult. The first thing I did when I installed the app was to go to “Get books,” thinking I could at least download some chapter previews. Nope — you’re greeted with a cheerful screen asking you to go to the Amazon Kindle store on your PC, or alternatively, to use Safari on your iPhone to browse to the Kindle store. Sitting in front of my Mac, I was able to pretty quickly “buy” several free previews. From there, it was as simple as refreshing the Kindle app on the iPhone to start reading.
The reading experience on the Kindle is less customizable than the Stanza, which might be better for some users. You sweep your finger rather than tapping to turn the page, which seems more intuitive but becomes really tiring after a while. The text is always justified, and is only available in five sizes. Like the Stanza, the Kindle app remembers where you stopped (even if you’re switching from iPhone Kindle to real Kindle.) And like the Stanza, you can bookmark pages and return to them later.
I really prefer the Stanza because of how it handles reading (repeated taps is much better than repeated swipes) but I think the Kindle app might wind up killing it. Really, what it boils down to is price and product availability. Browsing for a new book to take on a quick trip this weekend, I came across “Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell. It’s new, out in paperback for a suggested retail price of $27.99, and available from Amazon in hardback for $18.47. On the Kindle store, it’s $9.99 — a little pricey for digital, but maybe okay for a new release. But on both the stores Stanza supports, it clocked in at the price of the new hardback — $27.99 from Fictionwise and $23.60 from Books on Board.
I might be willing to pay a premium for a new e-edition, but full price is completely unreasonable for a digital edition, which (duh) doesn’t have printing, distribution or shipping costs. I can walk into Barnes & Noble and use my Reader Rewards card and save more money, plus have the actual book.