Blog Post

Hands on: Retina-enabled reading apps for iPad

As a voracious reader, the main appeal of the high-resolution Retina display of the new iPad(s AAPL) is the improved text viewing, with the enhanced graphics as a secondary, but welcome, improvement. In theory, any app that uses Apple’s built-in text rendering API will render fine on a Retina display. The problem with the reading apps is that few of them use that API. Instead, apps like the Kindle(s AMZN) and Nook(s BKS) apps use their own rendering mechanism. Fortunately, the Amazon app has been upgraded to take advantage of the new display — unfortunately, the Nook app hasn’t. Below I detail my experiences with the major reader apps that are now Retina-capable: the Kindle app, iBooks, Comixology and Zinio.


Apple’s iBooks app was my default reading platform until I got a Kindle device. Amazon’s selection, Whispernet technology, and the ability to read my books on just about any device I owned moved me to that platform. Now iBooks uses your iTunes account to sync notes and reading position, and the selection for new releases seems to match Amazon’s new releases. What I had forgotten was just how good books in iBooks look. When reading the sample chapter of Michael Connelly’s The Drop via iBooks I noticed the typography overall was crisper and the design markedly different from the Kindle app. Even side-loaded books looked better, probably due to different fonts in the iBooks app.

I also noticed an improvement in the rendering of PDFs compared to the original iPad. Assuming the PDF is of a high-enough resolution, the text and photos will be much clearer on the new iPad thanks to the display. The one thing I’ve always enjoyed about the iBooks app is how well it manages ePub and PDF files.

The problem I’ve noticed with iBooks, however, is it seems to take a very long time to open — about 13 seconds. I’m not sure if it’s because of the size of my library or just the app itself.

Amazon Kindle app

While the iBooks app looks better, the Kindle app still looks great on the Retina display.  Even if you’ve blown the text up to the largest font size available, the text is very clear with no discernible anti-aliasing.  The latest version of the app has an interface that is similar to the Kindle Fire app with tabs along the top for Books, Newsstand and Personal Documents. As an aside, I’ve always enjoyed how seamless Amazon’s Personal Documents makes reading side-loaded books. I hope someday Apple will let iBooks readers store side-loaded ePubs in iCloud.

While I was previously critical of how Newsstand items rendered in the Kindle app, I did notice  a very slight improvement with the new iPad. The text is still slightly too heavy for my tastes and it varies from magazine to magazine. The pages do load smoothly, however, and I did not detect any focusing issues.


Zinio has the toughest load to bear with the Retina display. Delivering quality text on a Retina display, even if you use your own API, isn’t that taxing — displaying 50-plus pages that are graphics is, however. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that Zinio had the worst growing pains. The version of the app available when the new iPad launched had issues where the pages would slowly load as tiles. The first release of the updated app showed a marginal improvement. The app that is now available (version 2.2.2 — check your updates, it launched almost immediately after 2.2.1) is a big improvement. The only time I notice the tiling effect is if the magazine is still being downloaded. While the focusing still isn’t instantaneous, it’s not any worse than usual.

I’m a guitar player, so the litmus test for me is how easily I can read the tablature in a magazine. On the iPad 2, I still had to zoom in to make out the small numbers. On the new iPad, it’s much clearer minimizing the need to zoom in. I have also noticed an improved sharpness in my photography magazines, especially with National Geographic.


The iPad really got me back into reading comics, and Comixology quickly became my go-to source for digital comics. The new iPad really makes this a fantastic reading experience. With older iPads, the text would be fuzzy enough to force me to use the pane-by-pane view. With the new iPad, I don’t need to. While the issues look great as they are, Comixology is stepping up their game by updating (for free) most of their library to what they call CMX HD.  At the time of publishing, roughly 1,000 titles have been upgraded. When you are shopping for comics it will say CMX HD in the lower right hand corner of the page if it is available in HD. This was the app I was most looking forward to on the new iPad, and it has not disappointed me at all.


This is somewhat of a mess. Updating apps for the Retina displays really drives home for me how discombobulated the entire Newsstand experience is. At the time of publishing, few Newsstand apps from my library have been updated. Non-updated Newsstand apps have a noticeable focusing issue where the page takes several seconds to load, and it focuses in annoying tiles.

Overall, I’m very pleased with most of these apps, especially iBooks and Comixology, and how they’ve adapted to the new display on the iPad. I’m hopeful that having to deal with delivering large files will change how Zinio and Newsstand issues are delivered, ideally by using the text APIs to make the text even clearer and the files smaller.

5 Responses to “Hands on: Retina-enabled reading apps for iPad”

  1. When I opened iBooks the first time after setting up my new iPad I noticed it went to the current page of the sideloaded book I had been reading on my old iPad. This led me to believe the sideloaded books are indeed stored in iCloud. Can anyone confirm?

  2. Also you seem to not know what the real issue with Newstand is.
    It seems you have not heard that Adobe and publishers want
    single format. That format is jpeg. So magazines are hundreds of megabytes already.
    Have you been sleep walking over the last two years. GOD.
    Good luck waiting for Adobe to move to epub for the magazines.