Whenever I’m asked to review an e-reading app, my first reaction hovers around snarky amusement. “Come on,” I say to myself. “If it shows text and you can read books, it’s a fine e-reader.” That I conduct this inner monologue each time I’m charged with such a review is clearly a personal failing—especially because I’m wrong. The ideal e-reading app should become as invisible as a paper book can, but not shy away from offering the advantages that only digital books can.
Last week, Apple unveiled iBooks 2. If you generally use the app on an iPod touch or an iPhone, iBooks 2 offers virtually no improvements over its predecessor. The bulk of the improvements Apple made to the app are limited to the iPad.
The big news with iBooks 2 was Apple’s introduction of iBooks interactive textbooks, along with the new Mac app iBooks Author to create those media-rich, interactive ebooks. The new textbook format—or any book created with iBooks Author—works exclusively on the iPad.
(Image Caption: This, That, and the Author: Textbooks, or any other fancy book made with iBooks Author, can contain interactive elements. But they're also a bit limited—you can't adjust fonts or font sizes in this view, for example.)
Thus, iBooks on the iPad now feels a bit like two apps smushed 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 original kind as regular ebooks, and the new ones as optimized ebooks.
To test out the optimized ebooks, I downloaded several from the iBookstore built into the iBooks app. The first thing you’ll note about optimized ebooks is that their file sizes are much, much larger than traditional ebooks. Tolstoy’s 1300 page War and Peace (a regular ebook) downloaded to iBooks in about five seconds on my iPad; it’s 2.3MB. E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, an optimized textbook of which just 51 pages are available, weighs in at 965.3MB. It took a lot longer to download.
If you do the math, that puts War and Peace at about 1.8 kilobytes per page, to Life On Earth’s 19 megabytes per page. It’s not surprising that textbooks crammed with 3D models, movies, and other interactive elements would 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 optimized textbooks like Life On Earth is that they really are beautiful. The experience of reading the books is cruft-free; the original iBooks theme that wasted screen real estate showing a skeumorphic bookbinding as you read is nowhere to be found in fancy reading mode. 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.)
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