I’ve recently looked at several e-reader apps, including the Kindle, iBooks, and Stanza offerings. Barnes & Noble, the book retailer behind the Nook e-reading device, offers its own e-reading app for iPad users, the awkwardly-named BN eReader for iPad (which is not to be confused with the iPhone- and iPod touch-friendly B&N eReader).
My chief requirement when evaluating e-reader apps is that they be able to fade away just like paper books do, so that you’re concentrating on the book itself and not the app. BN eReader just barely succeeds in this regard, because of a few frustrating weaknesses with the app’s text rendering. Fortunately, most of the annoyances are avoidable when reading for long stretches at a time.
Before we get into that, though, let’s highlight the plusses of BN eReader. First off, the app offers an excellent degree of text customization options: You can choose from eight fonts in five sizes, adjust line-spacing, and toggle full justification on and off—all from within a panel that’s never more than two taps away as you read. (As in the Kindle and iBooks apps, tapping on the book text in BN eReader toggles the presence of its pagination slider and toolbar.)
Beyond those options, you can adjust the colors of both the text and background. BN eReader also includes a handful of built-in themes, and you can save any color/font/layout combinations as custom themes of your own, too. Unlike its competitors, the app doesn’t offer a true brightness control, but as you long as you save a good nighttime reading theme (I prefer dim gray text over a black background), you should be able to make do without it.
A (bizarrely separate) button on the toolbar lets you adjust the text’s margins. Using the absolute narrowest margins available, portrait mode is a little tighter than necessary, but landscape reading remains somewhat manageable, since the block of text isn’t quite as comically wide as it would otherwise be.
Unfortunately, though, these powerful layout options come at a steep, bothersome price: They all take at least a couple seconds to apply. Whether you’re changing the font, the colors, or the margins, every tweak causes a two-or-more second delay, during which the text vanishes, and you see only a spinning “loading” animation. Luckily, you shouldn’t need to change your text’s look too frequently, but even the process of setting up your themes initially is unnecessarily time-consuming and aggravating, since you can’t preview any of your changes live—every adjustment is another multi-second pause. You get the same delay when you switch from portrait to landscape mode.
Even more unfortunate, that multi-second delay in text-rendering gets worse whenever you launch the app. Now, it’s not a huge deal if you launch the app and it takes four or five seconds for the text to appear once. But because it happens every time—and you’ll of course be opening the app to read with some frequency—those delays can add up. As I mentioned at the outset, I like my e-readers to recreate the real book experience by essentially feeling invisible. When I open a paper book to my bookmarked page, I can start reading instantly. I expect e-readers to behave the same way, and BN eReader simply doesn’t.
Obviously, e-reading can offer some advantages over paper books. The app’s ability to provide inline definitions when you tap on a word is great. But some of its other functionality is less impressive. For example, like the Kindle app, BN eReader dumps you out into Safari when you want to find more books to buy from Barnes & Noble. I also found that searching books (I searched Pride and Prejudice for “eldest”) takes a surprisingly long time: My search took more than eight seconds, and when I tapped “more results” for the next screenful of matches, that took another eight seconds.
On the whole, BN eReader performs merely adequately as an e-reader app. Were it all I knew on the iPad, I’d likely content myself with it, in spite of its limitations. But iBooks and Kindle both outshine BN eReader in several performance-related ways. Since the app itself is free, it’s easy enough to install to test for yourself. Right now, though, the app is simply inferior to its competition.
[ Lex Friedman is a frequent Macworld contributor.]