Comparing the top four ereader apps

Deb Shinder discusses the features and the drawbacks of the free apps for the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader, and iBooks.

Smartphone owners who want to read an electronic book (ebook) don't necessarily have to shell out a couple hundred dollars for an ereader, because no matter which mobile platform you use, "there's an app for that." We'll look at and compare the most popular ereader apps.

Amazon Kindle released the Kindle in 2007 as a networked hardware/software platform for reading ebooks, and although it was by no means the first such device, it was the first one to gain widespread popularity. Amazon has released the Kindle software for free for Windows, Mac OS X, iPhone, iPad, Android (Figure A), BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7. Figure A

Amazon Kindle app on Android

The Kindle software includes a feature called Whispersync, which automatically synchronizes your place in the book across all your devices. That means you can start reading on your PC or tablet, and then pick up where you left off on your smartphone. Your bookmarks, notes, and highlighted text are also synchronized.

The Kindle software is easy to use, and Amazon offers a very large selection of books. When you purchase a book from the Kindle Store, you can choose to send it to any of your devices (Figure B). Figure B

When you buy an ebook from Amazon, you can send it to any of your devices.

You can access your reading material from any of your other devices through the Archived Items option in the Kindle menu. You can sort your list of books according to purchase date (most recent), title, or author.

When you're reading an ebook, you tap one side or the other of the screen or swipe your finger right or left, to go to the next or previous page. You can tap the bottom or the top of the screen to display a progress bar at the bottom that shows you the current location in the book and percentage of it that you've read; it also displays the device's status bar at the top. You can create bookmarks through the menu or by tapping the top right corner of the page. You can also zoom in on images and graphics.

You can set view options, which allow you to control the font size, background color (black text on white or sepia, or white text on black), and the brightness of the phone's display. This brightness setting is specific to the Kindle app only and doesn't affect the brightness of your display when you close out of the app.

The Amazon app does have some limitations. For instance, although the app displays highlights you've made on a Kindle device, it doesn't allow you to create highlights. And although it allows you to change the font size, it doesn't let you select a different font style.

All in all, the Amazon app gives you a pleasant reading experience, with the convenience and large selection of the Kindle Store.

Barnes & Noble Nook

Popular bricks-and-mortar bookseller Barnes & Noble released the Nook ereader in November 2009, and followed up with Nook software for the PC and popular mobile platforms. There are free apps for the Barnes & Noble Nook for the iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, PC, Mac, and the iPad.

The Barnes & Noble Nook app has a slightly different look than the Kindle app. As you can see in Figure C, the Nook app has a simpler interface with these six tiles: Reading now, Library, Archive, Settings, Shop, My files. Figure C

The Nook app uses a tiled interface.

The Reading now tile displays the book you're currently reading. Within that book, you can do the same things you can do with the Kindle reader and more. The animations are a bit more elegant; when you tap or swipe to turn the page, you see an animation of a turning page, which you don't get with the Kindle app.

There are more settings options with the Nook software, too. You can turn off those cool animated page turns, and you can select whether to hide the status bar (Figure D). I like having the clock and battery indicator visible when I'm reading, which is something I can't do with the Kindle app. Another nice feature is the ability to lock the page orientation, which is especially handy if you like to read in bed and hold your device sideways. It drives me nuts when the page keeps shifting between landscape and portrait mode with the Kindle app. Figure D

The Nook app gives you much more flexibility than the Kindle app to customize the experience with settings.

Page themes refer to the background color, with black text on white being called "Day" and white text on black called "Night." In addition to Sepia, you also get an extra choice called Butter. This is a lighter off-white that makes a very nice background.

You can also change the side margins from the default of medium to small, large, or extra large, and you have the same four options for line spacing. You can even choose whether to display the text fully justified (both sides) or only justified on the left side. In addition, you can choose whether to remove the file from the mobile device when you archive it (which is a good option to have when you're using a smartphone that has limited storage space), and whether to show a warning message when archiving an item.

I like that the Nook app shows you what page you're on, in addition to the location number that the Kindle app displays. This probably wouldn't matter to someone who grew up reading ebooks, but for those of us who are used to gauging our position in a book by the page number, it's disorienting not to have a way to find out what page you're on.

The Go To selections are, in my opinion, nicer than those in the Kindle app as well. You can go to a particular page, to a specific part of the contents (Title page, copyright page, introduction, dedication, a particular chapter, etc.), to a bookmark, or to notes or highlights you've made (Figure E). Figure E

The Nook app lets you "go to" a specific page, part of the book, bookmark, notes, or highlights.

The Library tile displays your most recent books. By default, the books are displayed in reverse chronological order based on when you purchased them, but you can also sort by title or author. You can view the details of any book in your library, and this includes a synopsis, as well as more about the author. There is a link here to find more books by the same author, as well as options to archive or delete the book. When you archive a book, it disappears from your library and appears instead in your Archive list. The My Files tile displays files you have copied to the /nook/mydocuments folder.

Overall, I think the Nook app provides a richer reading experience than the Kindle app. Book prices (at least of popular bestsellers) seem to be about the same as Amazon.

Sony Reader

The Sony Reader has been around since 2006 -- a year before the Kindle and three years before the Nook. Sony Reader software is available for free for Android phones, but it was reported in early February 2011 that Apple had locked the app out of its App Store because users would purchase content directly from Sony instead of through the official Apple portal. As of April 2011, the Sony website still reports that the company is trying to come to an equitable resolution with Apple. In the meantime, an iPhone app is currently not available.

The home page of the Sony Reader app doesn't look as well organized as some of the other ereader apps. I do, however, like having the ability to designate a book as a Favorite. The home page displays books, recent books, favorites, and links to your bookmarks and highlights (Figure F). Figure F

The Sony Reader app's home page is clean, though it isn't as well organized as other ereader apps.
The Sony app, like the Kindle app, merely slides from one page to the next (or previous) without the cool animation of the Nook software. The progress bar at the bottom is graphical only, and shows neither page number nor location number, although touching a spot on the bar will bring up the page number. There is an appearance setting that lets you adjust brightness and font size; there is also a larger range of font sizes than on the Kindle app or Nook app, so you can go from huge type suitable for the visually impaired to tiny type (Figure G). I didn't find a way to change the background color of the pages, or any way to lock the page orientation for this app only. Figure G

The Sony Reader offers a larger range of font sizes than any of the other ereader apps.

The general settings page on the Sony Reader app is sparse, with only an About Reader link that shows some version information, View My Account, which takes you to the account settings for email, password, and payment options on the website, and the option to Deauthorize the device.

One very nice feature is the ability to search within the book, which isn't available on the Kindle app (although Amazon says it's coming soon). Search ability is, in my opinion, one of the major advantages of ebooks over print books, so I'm happy to see it implemented.


Apple's iBooks free app (Figure H) is, not surprisingly, available only for Apple products: iPhone, iPad, and OS X. Its interface is more elegant than the other ereader apps; your books are displayed on a bookshelf, and the pages of the books are designed to look like real pages and to flip when you go to the next or previous page. When you press the Store button, the bookcase flips around to reveal the bookstore. There's no denying that the iBooks app has the biggest "cool factor" of all the ereader apps. It's also nice that you can rearrange your books on the shelf in any order you choose, instead of being limited to a few sorting methods.

Figure H

iBooks iPad app Home screen

In addition to ePub books purchased through the iBookstore, you can also read PDF documents with the iBooks app, such as those that you receive as email attachments. To get a PDF from your computer to your phone (other than by emailing it to yourself), you'll have to use iTunes. You can add bookmarks to PDFs and zoom in. The bookmarking feature is also visually cool; it allows you to highlight in different colors, and the notes you make look like sticky notes stuck to the book page.

On the downside, the iBooks library is far smaller than those of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Apple says there are about 150,000 titles available in its bookstore, whereas Kindle is approaching one million and Barnes & Noble claims two million.

I consider the biggest limitation of iBooks is that it only runs on Apple devices. With the other readers, I can access my books and synchronize my place where I left off reading across different devices on different platforms, such as my Windows PC and my Android tablet and phone.


For buying and reading most books in electronic format on a mobile device, the four apps mentioned in this post are the most popular and functional. If you want to use your phone primarily to read product manuals, guides, white papers, and other documents that come in PDF format, and you don't want to be able to buy books from your mobile device, you may prefer a PDF reader instead of one of the "bookstore" oriented ebook readers. There are numerous PDF apps for the top smartphone platforms, including Adobe Reader. One of the best PDF readers for Android is RepliGo Reader. Another popular option is ezPDF.

The ereader app that is best for you is, ultimately, a subjective matter. Some users prefer the clean, simple, minimalist approach of the Sony Reader, while others like the sophisticated animations of iBooks. Many readers want the larger selection of titles that you get with Amazon and Barnes & Noble.