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


To say Google’s (s goog) eBooks app lacks polish would be kind indeed. If Apple (s aapl) 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 (s amzn), 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 (s adbe). 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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Google Books has a feature that Amazon pigheadedly refuses to give its users: page numbers! This enables the user to make use of the original index and also to communicate with users of the print version.

Because of this, and also the tantalizing prospect of accessing all those orphaned copyright works in the future? I’ve abandoned the Kindle app on my iPhone and have switched to Google.

Donald Nordeng

After reading over 30 ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle reader for iPad/iPhone in the last 3 months, and one or two on iBooks. Mainly due to Apple’s limited number of books, I was happy to try out the new Google Books application.

Yesterday I downloaded the Google Books app on my iPad and then on my iPhone 3GS. To me, the sync function on the Google Books app as well as its excellent library management makes it easy to use. These are essential to the mobile reader. This works well between the two devices. Nothing worse than starting a book on one device only to have to remember. Kindle was the first reader to solve this. Apple’s implementation I absolutely hate. It is cumbersome and slow.

You can’t evaluate an ebook without reading a book, so on reading P.D. James’ recommendation in her Kindle ebook “Talking About Detective Fiction” on my iPad, I downloaded Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” on the iPad version of the Google Books app.

The Google Books app gives me a choice between the scanned pages version and Flowing Text. I love the ability to read a facsimile copy of the original 1853 printing of the book by choosing Scanned pages. It gives me a feel of how the book was presented to the reader. The scan is not perfect, but definitely readable. Contrary to the reviewer, I like the fact that the reader doesn’t respond to the device’s motion, much like a book. I think this lack of choice must be due to the scanned pages option not being able to respond to this movement, like the original.

Amazon’s Kindle Reader is still the best option for me because of its international approach to purchasing. Being in Japan most of the time I can’t buy books from Google while I am in Japan, even with a U.S credit card. Google Books will most likely get this together for the Spring of 2011.

This review highlights many of the missing features of Google Books, notably the highlighting and notes. Personally I rarely highlight or use notes anyway, so I don’t care about these features. The word lookup that Kindle has is fantastic, I am not aware of any other eReader that has this function though. I must say the Amazon online library is a nice addition to the Kindle service. Kindle as a book platform is very well thought out. This keeps it at the forefront of ebooks in my mind.

Andrei Timoshenko

Not sure how a comparison with Android makes sense here – not only is future performance independent of past performance, but Google’s track record of project success is decidedly mixed – it experiments a lot, and most of the experiments do not go far. For every of its Androids, there is a Wave. So Google eBooks will stand or fall on its own merits, and now is too early to tell.

Having said that, you are probably right that Google eBooks will surpass the iBookstore, but mostly because the iBookstore seems to be going nowhere fast. The big gorilla in the room is the Kindle, and I really cannot see what Google can provide that Amazon cannot. Google eBooks will have more stores that can be used to buy from, but did not bookstores mostly differentiate by book selection/availability and geographical proximity? e-Books (and the Internet in general) remove both of those constraints. So what is the point of many e-Book stores?

Ashwin Narasimhan

I have a feeling Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook platform will ultimately own this space (even if the device itself eventually stops being made, which I see happening in five years or so). It has wonderful apps on basically every platform (with the exception of competing e-readers). Amazon and Barnes and Noble have the best selection as well (which is what really will matter). iBooks will need a way to read and buy books on a Mac or PC (even if that’s not where most of the reading would be done). With HTML5 Kindle and iBooks can move to the web. Selling media (or consumption software) of any kind is just something Google isn’t good at. If Google makes a YouTube for books however, that might be the part of the eBook market they manage to be successful in.


Reading books is all about the experience. To say that it doesn’t matter if the experience sucks or not, makes one wonder just how much reading you do. Clearly not enough.

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