And The Winner Is… Best eBook Reading App

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Next time you are traveling somewhere or commuting your way to work, look around you. It’s evident that the number of book lovers who have taken to reading on a digital format has risen significantly over the years. In 2011 and 2012, Amazon said it sold 105 books for its Kindle e-reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback books, excluding free eBooks.

Though it has become apparent in recent years that there is a slight fall in the growth of eBook sales (particularly so in 2013), eBooks are still far too compelling to die out, and today we tend to use more than one medium to consume the same thing. So next time you’re hesitating to pull out your Kindle or iPad mini on the bus or train due to the watchful eyes of a “book snob,” just remember that it’s not possible to please everyone, and that there are still thousands of benefits to the electronic book format.

The iPad has arguably become one of the leading eBook reading platforms, and the App Store is overflowing with apps that all promise a great reading experience. In 2011, to the disappointment of book lovers far and wide, beloved ebook reader Stanza met its demise, leaving a huge gaping hole in the market for the next best thing. What did Stanza have that set the standard for most reading apps today? First off, it had many features that the competition lacked, including a wide range of supported formats, excellent formatting options, and a swipe-to-dim feature that makes reading on a screen much easier on the eyes.

In 2008, Stanza won 148Apps Best Free or Ad Supported App Award in the Best App Ever contest. PCMag gave the iPhone version of Stanza a 4/5 stating, “Stanza is the most capable iPhone e-book reader available, with the easiest way to acquire the widest selection of books for your handheld perusal and the greatest number of text-formatting options”.

Likewise, zdnet.com said of Stanza in an article; “Stanza is by far the most sophisticated e-Reader application for iPad… If you have lots of content that you’ve collected over the years, Stanza is definitely a must-have app. There’s absolutely no downside, it’s free to use and does more than any e-book reader app…”

Even book community Goodreads had a whole host of positive reviews. What could possibly give users the same freedom of customization, flexibility and performance that Stanza did? We ran some hands-on testing (see our chart, below) and compared the latest e-reading apps on the market today to determine which iOS e-reader you should definitely be downloading.

Comparing all the features of Ebook readers.

Comparing all the features of eBook reader apps – data and final row credit – Wikipedia

THE WINNER – MARVIN

Prettier than iBooks, cleverer than Kindle, and a reading experience reminiscent of the largely missed reigning predecessor that was Stanza, Marvin is the perfect e-book reader for iOS.

Marvin has a ton of formatting options that give total control over how the app looks and feels. Changing the text size and font is a given, but there’s also the option to set margin widths to your preferred reading style, along with the ability to change the line-spacing and paragraph spacing. There’s so many customizable options that the app beats any of its competition on these features alone.

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It may come as no surprise that Kindle, iBooks, and most reputable e-book reading apps have night reading themes which basically switches the iPad to a darker scheme to save your eyes from any glare when reading in the dark. Marvin stands above all of these, with the option of a third standalone theme, and the look is fully customizable. If you fancy going all out with a red background and yellow text, you certainly can. Likewise, you can also change the style of the day and night modes to fit your own needs. And that’s not all; Marvin will literally remember each setting for the next time you load up the app, including whether you’ve changed the layout completely to suit the style format you prefer.

AppAdvice speaks highly of Marvin’s customisable features and assets; “…in case you’re wondering about the app’s customization options for fonts, margins, brightness, and whatnot, suffice it to say that Marvin has lots and lots of them.”

Though most of today’s well known e-book reading apps allow the user to change the brightness as they see fit, Marvin goes one step further. Swiping vertically on the screen with two fingers allows you to change the “warmth,” making it easier to read in a variety of different lighting conditions. Alongside this you can change the directions the pages will turn, and a whole array of fine gestures that allow for the most pleasurable reading experience possible.

Marvin is also the student’s perfect companion when it comes to studying. It goes without saying that apps like Kindle and iBooks also allow for text lookups, highlights, annotations, and dictionary use, but none other performs in the way Marvin does. It allows you to view all your bookmarks and highlights on a separate page, which makes for far easier viewing. There’s also the ability to email your highlights and so forth, which is highly useful for those revising for exams or writing a paper. You can build summaries, tack on notes, reviews or articles to your book and even share your research between friends.

Another great asset that Marvin does well is the “Deep View” feature that scans the book you’re reading and finds related information about the names, characters, and places, and other interesting material. This also does so without exiting the app, which allows for a seamless return straight back to what you were previously doing.

shelfless.org considers Marvin the only iOS ebook reader you will need, saying,

“Marvin is the most interesting and accomplished iOS ebook reader in a long time. Its text formatting features are second to none, putting it way ahead of anything else available. The Deep View AI engine is handy, probably more so to students. Highlighting and note taking, whilst not covered in this review, are all on a par or better than the offerings from Amazon and Apple. There are other hidden gems here too, such as the ability to save definitions of every word you look up, thus creating your own personal dictionary that you can later export.”

Something that Kindle nor iBooks yet give access to, and one of the greatest features by far, has to be Marvin’s built-in timer, that allows you to set a period for how long you wish to read or study. Upon exiting the app, Marvin also tells you how long you’ve been reading.

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Marvin comes with a bundle of free ebooks, available to download after launching the app for the first time. These include several classic novels, which is great for those who love reading classic literature. Not to your taste? No problem. Marvin makes adding more ebooks to your library easy, giving you the choice of three different methods in which to do so. One includes iTunes file sharing to transfer any ePubs from your computer straight to Marvin. The second involves using Marvin to open attachments in your iPad Mail app. That, or you can simply connect Marvin to Dropbox, where you can download any of the ebooks you have stored. Bear in mind that Marvin does not support DRM-protected ebooks, and the only formats you can open and read are ePubs and PDFs.

Just when you thought Marvin couldn’t get better, there’s always a new update or feature in the works. The latest update adds a new star rating system, 6 new smart collections to filter by star rating, bulk actions to rate, the ability to delete bookmarks and highlights, keywords in the library search bar, note attachment and more.

It also supports Calibre, the industry-standard e-book library manager. With Calibre, you can sync your books to other e-book readers, convert e-books, manage your library, and more. Since the demise of Stanza, there hasn’t really been an app that has really worked well alongside Calibre, but Marvin brings back the freedom to communicate directly with the manager app.

Of course, Cult of Mac also reviewed Marvin in December 2012, and it scored high as a don’t-miss app. Back then, Marvin was of course new on the scene; it’s been greatly improved in a whole number of ways since then.

With scores of positive reviews across-the-board, iOS users in particular have given this app a collective five-star rating overall. User Han00 says, “This app is the reason I love my iPad. It’s incredibly easy to use and so helpful. It makes it possible for me to have a library like the one in Beauty and the Beast right at my fingertips, no ladders needed! I love that you can edit metadata in the app itself, I love the interface, the fonts and colors, the simple commands and shortcuts you can assign to menu buttons. I would say this app has it all, except for the fact that just when I think it can’t get any better, Marvin is updated and proves me wrong.”

Reading and book sharing site Goodreads has nothing but appreciation for Marvin, with a host of five-star ratings praising the app.

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Is Marvin perfect? Almost. Nothing’s perfect, as there will always be someone who turns their nose up at something, but in all honesty, the only major downside to Marvin has to be the fact you have to pay for the full version. One other slight critique that should be taken into account before purchasing is that due to its lack of DRM support, those who buy their eBooks from Amazon, iBooks, other DRM book stores cannot integrate their purchases with Marvin. Though there are ways around this, one being using Calibre to strip DRM and convert files to other formats, this isn’t something Cult of Mac personally advises. Depending on one’s country, removing DRM is very much a legal gray area, especially due to ambiguous and conflicting laws. It can be argued that if you own the book then technically it’s not “breaking any laws,” but it still remains uncertain on where this falls in terms of copyright violations.

Aside from the aforementioned, with all the above features and at the inexpensive cost of $2.99, you can hardly go wrong. There is also a “lite” version that lets you try Marvin out, but you only get access to one book at a time and the other features are limited too. Also, casual readers may find a bit of a learning curve, but there’s no reason that Marvin has to be used in all it’s complexity. The options are certainly there to tinker around with, but Marvin is also great in its original downloaded state.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

KINDLE

Yes, Kindle has a cluttered interface, and frustratingly offers less flexibility than Marvin, but as an alternative, it definitely holds its own. Amazon’s Kindle Store, for example, still has the largest array of ebook content online, with over 1.5 million books available to browse, download, or purchase. For Kindle users, it’s highly beneficial since all of your books, notes, and reading progress are synchronized via WhisperSync between any of your Kindle devices and the accounts registered to them.

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Unfortunately, the Kindle app does have its drawbacks. It doesn’t allow you to import anything other than .MOBI format or PDF files, and it only works with titles purchased from the Kindle Store. You can’t adjust the margins, and there’s only a handful of fonts for you to choose from should you wish to change it. It also doesn’t offer much in the way of customization when it comes to themes, allowing you to only switch between black, white or sepia. Similar to Marvin, you can perform a text search, or look up specific words or terms with Google or Wikipedia. Book navigation is pretty swift too, and turning pages is as easy as swiping or tapping the screen.

Though Kindle owners will find the app to their advantage, it pales in comparison compared to the smarter, seamless experience that Marvin offers. Unfortunately though, Marvin only supports .ePub files, so those who regularly access the Kindle Store will sadly have to sit this one out.

BLUEFIRE READER

Though it’s not as greatly known as Amazon’s Kindle app, or Apple’s iBooks, Bluefire Reader is great for reading both ePubs encrypted with Adobe’s DRM, as well as unencrypted ePubs and PDF files. You can then simply authorize the app with your Adobe ID, and download books from either Dropbox or iTunes to add them to your library. It’s also an alternative to OverDrive for library book downloads, if that’s your kind of thing.

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Although Bluefire is indeed a great all-around app, its main complaint is how sluggish it is at loading eBooks compared to the faster, more acclaimed reading apps. This is mainly due to its sophisticated typeface more than anything else though, which automatically inserts ligatures that make text far easier to read. That aside, it’s not really noticeable within a wall of text, but your eyes certainly will be thankful for the comfort.

Bluefire Reader also offers many other options including orientation lock, different typefaces, themes, and the ability to use it for highlighting and annotation. Unfortunately, Bluefire is hindered slightly by its lack of an offline dictionary and the inability to look-up words and terms on Wikipedia. Another missing feature is the two-column support in landscape mode, which can be a huge setback for some readers. That’s a glaring reason why Marvin remains our number one choice for reading, but Bluefire does have its charm and qualities, and is still a much more appealing option than Apple’s iBooks.

ROUND UP

  • Marvin: Best customizable reading app, packed with special features, integration and synchronisation with Calibre, ePub and PDF only, custom commands, costs $2.99.
  • Kindle: Access to the largest library of ebooks online, WhisperSync between all of your Kindle devices, fewer customizable options, only supports .mobi and PDF.
  • Bluefire Reader: Great for reading DRM protected ePubs, alternative to OverDrive, comfortable ebook reading app, lacks two-column support and an offline dictionary.

ALTERNATIVE SERVICES

Apple’s iBooks
Features: Cloud Sync, Themes, multi-column mode, highlight, annotation and Dictionary, Wikipedia lookup, in-app book store.
Supported Formats: ePub and PDF
Price: Free

ebookMobi
Features:Adjustable text size, brightness, font style, backgrounds and provides the option to import dictionary of choice. Methods to import books include iTunes, the app’s built-in connection to its free accessible book sites, Dropbox or Google Search, lacks DRM support.
Supported Formats: ePub, .Mobi, fb2, pdb, PDF, RTF, HTML, CBR, CHM and .txt files.
Price: $1.99

  • Mike

    I tried Marvin and I probably even paid for the app. But it just feels overly complicated. I just want to flip pages and read the books. And simplicity and nice typography is all I need.

    I’m using two e-readers- iBooks when I need to share notes between my iDevices and Macbook. And then there’s Readmill when sharing books and notes with other people. Both are simple- with Readmill you need to upload the book via its website- and doesn’t require too much fiddling in my part.

  • devanish

    Said about the Kindle app: “….it only works with titles purchased from the Kindle Store.” This is not correct. You can import non purchased files, whispernet syncing also works for emailed .mobi files that you have not purchased via Amazon.

  • krabbie

    If your first prize winner is Marvin and it only works with Free Books, how does that win???? Free is nice but the lack of ability to read all books is a looser in my book.

  • Wulf C. Krueger

    First of all: Marvin undoubtedly is the best iOS ebook reader out there.

    This article isn’t great, though…

    “We ran some hands-on testing (see our chart, below) and compared the latest e-reading apps on the market today to determine which iOS e-reader you should definitely be downloading.”

    Hands-on? No, you copied the contents of that table verbatim from Wikipedia:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_iOS_e-book_reader_software

    “the only formats you can open and read are ePubs and PDFs”

    Uhm, no? Marvin does NOT support PDFs.

    “There is also a “lite” version that lets you try Marvin out, but [...] other features are limited too.”

    Name just one other “limited feature”. Matter of fact, there are no other limitations.

    • Starman_Andromeda

      Wulf, superb comment! Keep ‘em honest!

      Marvin is a good ereader, with lot of good features, but it also has all sorts of issues:

      1. Bright white interface elements, bright white around photos, bright white screen on launch, and bright screen all around–even when a night theme is set. Bad for reading at night. So, set a night theme, but be blinded by glare!

      2. Copying text is hidden. (With tweaking, you can add Copy+ to a pop-up menu, but it should be default.)

      3. Very slow page turning an ebook has pictures or drawings.

      4. Slow to return to where you left off.

      5. Swipe to control brightness resets the brightness for the *entire* device. Most readers do it *within* themselves only.

      6 Host of interface and display glitches (trapped inside search, vertical flash on page turning, tables often do not fit on screen, doesn’t adjust indents on many books).

      I won’t go on; it would simply be piling on.

  • http://machinemachine.net Daniel Rourke

    You missed Readmill, which is an enormous shame. It is by far the best ebook app I have so far used, and unlike Marvin it is available on IOS and Android.

  • Mile Ćento

    +1 for Readmill

  • Francisco

    WTF?? Why is not GoodReader in this comparision? It’s better AND smarter of them all.

  • Jeremy

    Word and line spacing on Kindle is terrible. Why? Fully justified text without hyphenation. Line spacing and text size are not well thought out. Is the largest Kindle text ever really useful? Given how extensive the offerings, why not offer an aesthetic at least equal to what Instapaper (or Medium) offers.

    The Oyster reader should be included in your review.

  • Charlie Sparkledrawers Blakemo

    I’m really frustrated with Marvin, personally. The fact that it only reads .epub docs limits its value to me – which I only learned after stupidly paying for the app. I have a lot of books, many in formats other than .epub. And its organizing functions are not intuitive. All my conversions and metadata editing have to be done in Calibre then transferred to the Marvin library, which is about two steps more and glacially slow. And who really needs the “smart” reading functions? All I want is a book-reader, not some half-assed word-processor. I actually liked the UI of iBooks, i just couldn’t stand Apple’s fascist insistence on controlling what and how I compile a library. I guess I’ll have to keep looking. Fortunately, eReaders are a popular genre right now, so there are sure to be some worthy competitors coming down the pike in the near future. But this encomium to Marvin was a waste of my time

About the author

Lucy IngramUK based freelance writer from the South of England, Lucy Ingram contributes to CultofMac by advising iOS users of some of the leading apps on the App Store today. She has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148apps, TouchArcade and GameSpot. You can contact her directly on Twitter @pixelartjunkie.

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