iBooks 2 for iOS review

Whenever we’re asked to review an e-reading app, our first reaction hovers around sarcastic amusement. “Come on,” we think. “If it shows text and you can read books on it, it’s fine.” But that instinctive reaction is wrong. The ideal e-reading app should offer more than text on a screen, and become as invisible as a paper book can, but not shy away from offering the advantages that only digital books can.

Apple recently unveiled iBooks 2. If you generally use the app on an iPod touch or an iPhone, iBooks 2 offers virtually no improvements on its predecessor. The bulk of the upgrades Apple made to the app are limited to the iPadI.

Optimised e-books

The big news with iBooks 2 is Apple’s introduction of iBooks interactive textbooks, along with the new Mac app iBooks Author (see overleaf) to create media-rich, interactive e-books. The new textbook format – or any book created with Author – works exclusively on iPad.

Consequently, iBooks on the iPad feels a bit like two apps squashed together. There’s the iBooks of old, for reading basic books with text and images, and then there’s iBooks 2 for reading and interacting with these new, multimedia-laden iBooks Author books. For the purposes of this review, let’s refer to the new ones as optimised e-books.

To test the optimised e-books, we downloaded several from the iBookstore built into the iBooks app. The first thing you’ll note about optimised e-books is that their file sizes are much, much larger. Tolstoy’s 1,300 page War and Peace, as a normal e-book, downloaded to iBooks in about five seconds on our iPad; it’s 2.3MB. EO Wilson’s Life on Earth, an optimised textbook of which just 51 pages are available, weighs in at 965.3MB. It took a lot longer to download.

If you do the maths, that puts War and Peace at about 1.8kB per page, to Life on Earth’s 19MB per page. It’s not surprising that textbooks crammed with 3D models, movies and other interactive elements are going to be huge, but it’s something to keep in mind, particularly if you use a 16GB iPad or a slower internet connection.

The good news about optimised textbooks is that they really are beautiful. For one thing, the original iBooks theme that wasted screen space showing an imitation bookbinding as you read is nowhere to be found. Gone too are the overwrought page-turning animations, as pages simply slide into view as you swipe – it’s very similar to the Kindle app’s page-turning experience. (A previous update to the iBooks app offered an option to disable the virtual book look when reading a regular ebook; look for Full Screen under Theme in the Font menu.)

Although fairly obviously the user experience will depend on how effectively the author and publisher prepare your fancy textbook, all of the launch textbooks we looked at offer impeccable design. Tapping to play a video or using your fingers to explore a 3D model or interactive graph is very cool, and the features have been implemented in a way that enhances your enjoyment of the book.

Unfortunately, though, because of how carefully laid-out these optimised e-books must be, the e-books themselves aren’t as flexible as regular e-books. You can’t, for example, adjust the font or font-size when you’re reading an optimised book, since that would mess up the formatting. (It would also mean that if an instructor asked you to turn to page 27, your page 27 might be different from your classmate’s – no good for the intended classroom audience.)

The sole exception to this font manipulation limitation occurs when you rotate your iPad from landscape to portrait. When you do that, you bid farewell to the book’s fancy layout, and instead get a view more akin to one that Instapaper or Safari Reader might provide. All the interactive elements get pulled out to the left margin, with the text flowing across the rest of the screen. Instead of turning pages, you simply keep swiping vertically, just like in Instapaper.

In this view, you can freely adjust the font and font size. In most of the textbooks we sampled, the font size used in the landscape view was readable, but smaller than our old-man eyes might prefer for lengthy reading – that we can adjust the font size in portrait mode is a welcome inclusion. And since the portrait view doesn’t use a page-turning mechanism, it can keep page numbers consistent. Page 17 might be two feet long if you measured it out, but all the text that should be associated with that page number is there.

A highlight of iBooks 2

When you’re reading optimised e-books, you get access to iBooks’ new highlighting features. All you need to do is tap and drag over text to highlight it. Tap the highlighted text to change its highlight colour (or switch to underlining), or to add a note. When you’re reading a regular book, this same gesture merely selects the text, at which point you can choose whether to highlight it or not.

To select text in optimised books, you can either double-tap, or tap and hold without moving your finger while holding until the selection interface appears. Only by selecting text – as opposed to highlighting it – can you bring up the option to see a word’s definition.

When you add a note to highlighted text, a tiny note icon appears in the page’s margin. Delicate-fingered users should have no problem tapping the diminutive icon, but the rest of us might accidentally turn the e-book’s page (in landscape view) if they inadvertently tap elsewhere in the margin. Switching to portrait view eliminates that problem, since you don’t tap to turn pages in that mode, on the optimised e-book side. If you’re attempting to review notes in a landscape mode or while reading a normal book and you find the tiny tap target too small to hit with any accuracy, you can instead tap once on the highlighted text the note is linked to, and then on the easier-to-reach Notes icon that appears.

Notecards

iBooks already offered a screen that consolidates all of your notes and highlights for a given book. While that screen now looks slightly different depending upon whether you’re reading a normal or an optimised e-book, it remains tremendously helpful. New in iBooks 2 – but limited to optimised e-books – is a Notecard view.

This view groups your highlights and notes into virtual notecards, with your highlights on one side and your notes on the other. You can shuffle the notecards to test yourself, and even limit the cards to highlights of a specific colour. And you can optionally include glossary terms from the book in the notecards – words on one side, definitions on the other. It’s a shame you can’t use notecards to study notes taken in normal books, and we can’t imagine the limitation is a technical one; it’s simply a feature Apple has only chosen to make available for optimised e-books.

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