I don’t have a Kindle and, unless I can sell more blood and fast, I’m not about to acquire one of the sleek new models anytime soon. Even if I pre-ordered a Kindle 2 today, I understand that my baby daughter would be entering pre-school before Amazon could ship it.
So instead, I’ll be content to keep reading the old-fashioned way: On my iPhone.
I still say that e-books and handhelds will never completely replace traditional books. But thanks to the iPhone, I’ve refined my taste in RSS readers, fallen in love with Instapaper ( , and even rediscovered some of the classics with Classics ( ).
As I mentioned previously, Classics is a great app with a beautiful interface. But you are limited to the titles that the developers format and upload, which, at the moment, are 16 very fine books. Most important for the purposes of this review, you cannot add your own books.
Stanza by Lexcycle is the e-book solution for the iPhone and iPod touch. With Stanza, you can download books from more than dozen sources, including Project Gutenberg’s online library of more than 27,000 copyright-free books. You can import your own library, including ePub, eReader and PDFs using Stanza’s desktop application. And if that weren’t enough, the app also doubles as an RSS reader.
Stanza’s interface may not be as elegant as Classics’, but it might be the most versatile around. Stanza lets you customize as much or as little as you want and readability is never, ever a problem. The app sorts your books by title, author, subject and latest reads. Browsing is easy and searches are a snap. And it never seems to crash.
I was impressed a few months back with Instapaper’s customizable typefaces and sizes—you can choose from three adjustable typefaces. Well, that’s nothing. Stanza not only lets you select from among fully scalable 21 typefaces, you can also adjust your margins and line spacing. And although I had little trouble navigating Stanza’s features, the app’s documentation is extensive and requires no jargon-to-English translation.
I found downloading a book to my iPhone supremely easy. (You must have a Wi-Fi, 3G, or EDGE connection, of course. Or you can sync your device using Stanza’s desktop app.) When you launch the app, simply tap the “Online Catalog” and browse away in more than a dozen sections, featuring free and paid material. I delved into Project Gutenberg’s library as I had never done before. When you find a book you want, simply tap the Download button in the upper right corner. When the book is ready, tap Read Now and the book will open. You turn pages by running your finger across the screen. When you’re finished, simply tap the screen, tap the back arrow in the upper left corner, and you will return to the app’s home screen. You can also change your preferences or type selection at anytime in or out of the book.
The app does have a couple of minor quirks worth noting. Stanza will open the last book you were reading at launch. More often than not, that’s what you’ll want it to do, since Stanza also bookmarks your page. But Stanza allows you to turn this feature on and off. Stanza will let you search for words and phrases, but only in chapters, not the entire text. And the app could really use a notepad feature.
Here’s the trouble with Stanza, and although it does not impact the app’s usability it may pose a real dilemma for users. The Stanza app is free, but its creators clearly want you buy books through the Fictionwise eReader store. It’s not required—there is plenty of material out there to download and read for free. But I hope that pushing sales through Fictionwise isn’t a linchpin of Stanza’s business strategy.
I realize that Fictionwise is one of the largest ebook stores around. But, fact is, Amazon and Kindle have a decisive competitive advantage when it comes to price. One example: The Kindle edition of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything is just $7.96, and traditionalists could buy a used copy of the hardcover for about the same price with shipping included. The same book through the Fictionwise store costs $16.95. As good as Stanza is, that isn’t a bargain at twice the price. Many newer titles cost as much in ebook form as they would in hard copy format.
I’ve seen Stanza praised elsewhere as a legitimate challenge to Amazon, the sort of app that could make the iPhone a mini-Kindle. I think that’s true up to a point. The app is first rate and the potential is clear. If Stanza could bring other e-book prices in line with Amazon’s, that would be a real victory for competition and for readers everywhere.
Stanza is compatible with any iPhone or iPod Touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.
[Ben Boychuk is a freelance writer and columnist in Rialto, Calif. Feel free to drop him a line.]