Battle of the e-Book readers: Stanza vs. iBooks

A Scandal in Bohemia, by Conan Doyle, as viewed in Stanza.

Above, page one of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first story in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as seen in Stanza, a free reader for iPad and iPhone. Stanza has a simple interface for finding, buying (and downloading free) e-books.

Stanza lets you control font size and choose from a number of templates offering a useful variety of foreground and background color and contrast. As the screenshot shows, it also lets you set text ragged right, which is the most legible setting for onscreen text.

Below, the same page in iBooks, the reader that comes with iPad. As one would expect from the company that brought us iTunes, the iBooks application has a slick interface for buying (and downloading free) e-books. But as a reader, it is currently less feature-rich, and thus less usable and less pleasing, than Stanza.

A Scandal in Bohemia, by Conan Doyle, as viewed in iBooks.

In iBooks, one cannot turn off full justification. While full justification is lovely in carefully produced printed books, it has a long history of bad aesthetics and poor usability on the screen. Given a sufficiently wide measure, full justification can be used onscreen for short passages, but it is inappropriate for anything beyond a paragraph or two.

Combine full justification with a single high-contrast template, and you have a reader that is better to look at than to read. Indeed, the 1.0 version of iBooks seems more like a flashy demo intended to wow potential iPad purchasers in the store than an application designed to provide book lovers with a viable alternative to print.

One suspects that future upgrades of iBooks will address these concerns. Meanwhile, if you intend to do serious reading on your iPad (or iPhone/Touch), download Stanza for free from the iTunes store.


Addendum: One wonders what will become of Stanza given Amazon’s ownership of the parent company. More here. Best scenario: the Kindle reader incorporates excellent Stanza features, while Stanza continues to operate as an alternative to Kindle, iBooks, et al.


16 thoughts on “Battle of the e-Book readers: Stanza vs. iBooks

  1. Stanza had a big input from reading community, not only from Lexcycle designers and programmers. I think it can serve an example on how paid Apple engineers bound with Apple UX guidelines deliver less than start-up team backed with enthusiastic community. Oh, yes, I know — this Lexcycle product sold to Amazon.

  2. I have to agree with the pith above. Stanza is simply slick – for reading. iBooks looks and feels like a mimic, but without any real purpose other than the lure potential customers with an idea. I am into licensing books since most of my reading nowadays is done on my iPod touch, but iBooks isn’t the way I’d choose to do it for now – at least not without the promise of massive changes on the horizon.

  3. My favourite feature in Stanza is the way you can adjust the brightness by swapping one finger up and down.
    A big drawback: scrolling is such a no-no that it shamelessy spreads pictures across multiple pages if it doesn’t fit (landscape mode).

  4. Probably my favorite Stanza feature is the ability to use Hoefler Text to read on the iPad. iBooks inexplicably left it out.

    I remain optimistic about Stanza’s future, given that the iPad update was released at all. Hopefully Amazon is just trying to own both their proprietary Kindle distribution platform and the major open epub alternative, hedging their bets rather than merely closing down the competition.

  5. Although it is indeed interesting that Stanza offers a number of reader overrides, including justification, line-height, margins, and paragraph indent, it seems misleading to say that “In iBooks, one cannot turn off full justification”. Indeed, a book designer can design an ePub with left alignment, and it stays left-aligned when viewed with iBooks.

    It is quite possible to design beautiful looking books for iBooks. I will be publishing a book with instructions for such an endeavor shortly, titled, “ePub: Straight to the Point” and have published a number of articles on that subject already on my blog.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    Liz

  6. P.S. What I find even more interesting is Stanza’s use of hyphenation libraries (are they built into the iPad??). iBooks, as far as I can tell, ignores them completely, and at the very least, doesn’t let you choose the desired one, as Stanza does.

  7. It is quite possible to design beautiful looking books for iBooks.

    Indeed it is! But if a book hasn’t been designed—if it’s merely been ported to e-pub from text, as is the case with the vast literary riches of Project Gutenberg, for example—then you are stuck with full justification in iBooks. (But not in Stanza.)

  8. Ultimately browsers will do double duty as both a “browser” and an e-reader. I’m with Joe Clark on this: leveraging HTML/CSS/JavaScript for ebooks is a no-brainer.
    To me, the idea of an e-book disconnected from the network, makes no sense. Seems retrograde.
    I want to annotate, bookmark. I want to share. I want to copy passages into other docs. And more.
    Doing nothing but porting a printed book onscreen leaves me cold.
    It’s like something out of the eighties. And very, very strange that we can’t seem to do it right!
    RE: iBooks – the formatting problems have gotten a lot of bad press. Apple has to know it sucks. Expect changes.

  9. I thought the problem with full justification was that iBooks and the Kindle Reader don’t properly hyphenate, or even make an attempt, and thus end up with poor spacing and horrible rivers in lines of text.

    As Liz Castro points out, Stanza on the iPad at least has a hyphenation library and attempts to build some hyphenation into it’s full justification. That combined with the wider range of font choices (including Hoefler Text which I find more than legible on the iPad) really help to make it much improved *even* in a fully justified layout.

  10. I’m a bit surprised by the conclusion of this article. The first screenshot looks like a blob of text thrown together (looking in fact much like a regular blog articl) while the second actually feels like reading a book. At least to me it’s much easier to read could also be due to a line-height that lets the text breath more).

    Can’t image many “regular” (read non-design/non-typophyle) people actually favoring the first application.

  11. I’ve been suggesting Stanza for a long time now. You can change the color, too—I prefer green text on black for some late-night Matrix-esque reading sessions.

    I still stick to my ultimate opinion, though: buying an iPad is a foolish waste.

  12. I completely agree with the article: full justification is a poor alignment choice for onscreen reading. By the way, the lack of typographical controls like text alignment and line height is the main reason I didn’t buy a Kindle yet.

    Regarding iBooks, did anyone notice, in Steve Jobs keynote at WWDC, that the text in the iPod version of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is left aligned? To me, this means that either there will be alignment controls in the iPod’s iBooks (maybe in the iPad’s too) or Steve was showing a custom version of the book.

    @Niels: As the article states, that’s the difference: the iBooks version is better to look at; the Stanza version is better to read. Left aligned text has even spacing between words, which helps to read faster and in a more enjoyable way; the uneven spacing between words in justified text makes reading slower and fatiguing (even annoying and utterly ugly, when this alignment is used in narrow blocks of text, like in the iPhone screen). Concerning the line height, the Stanza sample is indeed tighter, but the application allows fine adjustments of
    this (and many other) typographical features.

  13. I should mention that Stanza also lets you control the leading (or line height) of your text as well. There really is no contest here.

  14. I’m surprised no one has mentioned that the Stanza version doesn’t seem to do italics (notice the word “the” in the Stanza app is all-caps, but the iBooks version is in proper italics.

  15. Long time fan of Stanza. Flirted with Kindle app a bit and was most excited to see iBooks on my iPhone. Sadly, I have to agree that it needs to add a few more of Stanzas tricks at least for the iPhone crowd that has to deal with smaller screens. One app that never gets mentioned is Eucalyptus. For project gutenburg text there is no better app. It’s full justification is akin to what one can obtain with the likes of latex. Absolute joy. At a cost. $9.99. Which a lot of people pale at seeing, but I’m serious, it’s awesome for gutenburg.

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