Google Books: The Worst iOS E-reader, But Still a Winner


To say Google’s eBooks app lacks polish would be kind indeed. If Apple can be accused of sometimes favoring form over function, Google does neither with Books. Instead, Google leaves out expected features, adds a few bizarre ones, and wraps it in a barren interface. Unfortunately, as with the battle between mobile operating systems, such omissions probably won’t matter in the end.

Google Books and eBookstore iPhone

Currently available only in the U.S., Google new eBooks offerings, launched Dec. 6, allow consumers to acquire and read books on a variety of devices, from handhelds to traditional computers, the latter needing only a web browser with JavaScript enabled. This gives Google an advantage over not only Apple, which doesn’t allow reading iBookstore titles on a Mac, but Amazon, too, which requires an application for reading Kindle books on traditional computers and mobile devices. Google also has an advantage in selling books. While Apple and Amazon require you to buy your books through their respective bookstores, Google not only sells its own books, but also partners with other stores, like Powell’s. The list of current partners may be small, but it’s bound to grow.

Google says there are more than three million free and commercial titles currently available in its eBookstore catalog in PDF and ePub formats, the latter using DRM from Adobe. Google touts its model as the most “open” bookstore, allowing consumers to store books in the cloud linked to their Google account and download them onto a variety of devices. However, some titles don’t have downloadable ePub files and require dedicated reading apps. Browsing eBookstore, I found the catalog lacking compared to Amazon’s Kindle Store, but both content and prices seem to be competitive with iBooks.

What’s definitely not competitive is Google’s Books app for iOS. From the moment it launches and you’re presented with a list of titles that can’t be sorted, listed without an icon, or archived, it’s just one disappointment after another. Like the Kindle app, buying books launches Safari (only iBooks gets special in-app treatment). The web store is a pleasant experience compared to the app itself, however.

Google Books on iPhone

The “Aa” brings up reading settings, which allow you to change the font, text size, and line spacing, as well as inverting text/background colors for day and night reading. While black text on white background is fine, I found the “night” option more difficult to read than with other apps. You also have the option of viewing text as scanned pages, a feature James liked on the Android version. While this is supposed to let you see the original typography, what it really looks like, at least with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is that someone laid the book on a copier in a school library to scan it.

Google Books

There’s no handy brightness control like iBooks has, and there’s no way to bookmark a page. Nor can you highlight text, make notes, or even look up a word in the dictionary by tapping and holding. But you can magnify the screen, and it’s really annoying. Apparently, Books thought I was squinting, rather than just hovering over the screen with a finger. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a way to turn this “feature” off.

Google Books

Thankfully, you can turn off the 3-D page turning, and you’d better, otherwise “Loading…” is what you will see every time you turn a page—very frustrating. Even with the effect turned off, eBooks felt sluggish compared to iBooks and Kindle on an iPhone 4.

Google Books iPad app

The iPad version was a little better, but I was surprised to find that there is no landscape mode. While that may not be a popular feature, its lack, and those ugly blue icons, say something, like maybe Google doesn’t care about app quality (or the iOS platform).

Actually, that’s probably unfair. I believe Google does care. I believe they care about getting their product to the largest audience as quickly as possible. If it starts out a little shabby, well, so was Android 1.6, and look how that turned out. A year or so later and Android is passing iOS in terms of market share.

While iBooks is arguably the most refined and elegant e-reader and convenient in terms of buying experiences, Google Books and the eBookstore will be everywhere a year from now. By then, the Books app will be close enough to iBooks and Kindle in terms of e-reader experience. Like iOS falling behind Android, iBooks will be likely be passed by Books in terms of popularity, and that’s unfortunate because “close enough” seems to be the defining experience of Google and Android, while Apple and iOS continue to strive for excellence.

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