E-reading application showdown, part 1: Annotations


About two weeks ago, in a fit of pique, I posted some gripes about my current e-reading application of choice, which is Kobo for the iPhone/iPod Touch. I was pressed for time, so I didn’t provide any context, such as why Kobo’s is my favorite e-reading app, which apps I’ve chosen it over, and whether the things I find awesome and annoying about it are unique to Kobo or are universal across the e-reading–on–iOS world right now.

Here, finally, is the first in a series of posts providing that context. Specifically, I’ll be walking through five of the e-reading applications I’ve used on the iPod Touch, explaining what I see as the pros, cons, and OMFG-what-were-they-thinkings of each.

Reading preferences are personal

Two assumptions I encounter often when talking with people about e-reading are

  1. the only e-reading devices that matter are relatively large-format devices—e.g., Kindle, iPad, or Nook; and
  2. one type of screen, whether e-ink or LCD, is inherently better for reading—all types of reading, for everyone—than the other.

And then I tell them I do most of my reading on an iPod Touch, and they look at me like I’m in-freaking-sane.

Because we’re not used to having choices about how we read, beyond hardcover vs. trade paperback vs. mass-market vs. large print, most people haven’t thought much about what makes reading comfortable for them. If they enjoy one book more than another, they usually credit the content, not the presentation. Partly that’s because, if everyone at the publishing house is doing his or her job1, the reader shouldn’t notice the physical nature of the book at all once they get into it. All the attention should be on the content. But if each reader could choose how his or her books look and function, we might see a much broader variation in fonts, layouts, paper, bindings, and so on. With the explosion of e-reading devices and applications, we’re starting to get some idea of that variety.

So the preferences I’ll be expressing here are merely that—preferences. My preferences. Having worked with books for most of my life—selling them, producing them, designing them, and, of course, reading way more of them than the average citizen—I’m in no way an average reader. And I’m wicked nearsighted, and I like to read in the dark. I don’t expect my preferences to match anyone else’s. I’m also atypical as a reader of e-books because I read on a smaller device than most people find comfortable (or think they’ll find comfortable; when I ask people if they’ve tried reading on a small device, the answer is nearly always “no”), and I don’t expect most people to follow my example.

But I think it’s important not to let the discussion about e-books and e-readers get too tied up with dedicated reading devices, such as the Kindle, and large multifunction devices, such as the iPad. Various companies have reported that most e-books are still being read on laptop and desktop computers, and there are a lot of people who aren’t going to be able to afford to buy a new gadget anytime soon—among them, myself. I also think it’s important not to assume that everyone who uses the iOS has an always-on Internet connection. The digital divide is real, and it’s growing wider, not narrower, as far as I know. I’d hate to see books fall into it and not make it back out.

How this series is organized

I debated for some time whether to organize this analysis by application or by function, and I’ve ended up choosing the latter. If you are a reader, you’ll have your own set of priorities about how you want software to behave—I mark up my e-books constantly, so I’m obsessed with annotation tools, the subject of this first installment—while you may not care about markup at all but have wonky vision and therefore be more concerned with what font sizes and color schemes are available in different apps. And if you’re reading this because you’re an interface design person, I figure you’ll probably want to compare how different apps handle the same functions. Some of these issues are evergreen, though the individual apps will change—during the past week, as I’ve been working on this article, I’ve winced every time I’ve synced my iPod, hoping there wouldn’t be a round of application updates that would require me to retake all my screenshots and revise some of my comparisons. I got lucky. We got new devices from Kobo and Barnes & Noble last week, but no new software. Hooray for slow development cycles!

The areas I’m planning to discuss are

  • Annotation
  • Typography
  • Colors and themes
  • Wayfinding
  • Metadata
  • Social Media

And the apps are

  • Google Books
  • iBooks
  • Kobo
  • Kindle
  • nook

Because I’ll be covering a lot of ground, and because I have been known to wax rambly, I’ll also create a sort of index for the series, in the form of a hyperlinked matrix of applications versus features. It’ll be located at the end of each post, and I’ll included little markers like this [#] throughout the series so you can skip to the grid from wherever. I’ll update it as I post each section.

There will be a lot of screenshots, which I’ll embed as thumbnails to keep the loading time reasonable. Roll over any image to see a caption, including which app it’s from. You can click on any thumbnail to see the full-size screenshot (and caption) on Flickr, or you can just go to the Flickr collection, which is a bit messy right now but is growing tidier, and which I’ve tried to tag in ways that will correspond to the app/feature grid.

Geek on.

Part 1: Annotation


One of the biggest changes to my reading behavior since I switched to e-books is that I highlight. Constantly. Because I can. Mostly typos. Sometimes I add notes, to clarify why I’ve marked something—e.g., “Sb” for space break, “Run up,” “Italic,” or the expressive “!!!” and “<3 <3 <3″—but mostly I just highlight a couple of words to show where a piece of punctuation is either missing or misplaced.

On a well-edited e-book, I’m capable of reading quietly, just like a normal person, but . . . apparently I don’t read very many well-edited e-books. So until Kobo wooed me away with its shiny Reading Life toys a few months ago (to be discussed later in the series, under metadata), the killer e-reading application feature for me was fast annotation. And my favorite reading app, therefore, was the one called simply eReader—which is owned by Barnes & Noble and, as I understand it, provided the core of what’s now the nook iOS app.

The eReader and nook applications have diverged in the last year, as one is updated and the other is not, but they still share the most efficient, least frustrating interface for highlighting text among all the apps I’ve tried. To select a word or phrase, you drag your finger across the text from where you want the selection to start to where it should end. When you lift your finger, the option to highlight or add a note comes up. It’s rat-simple, and very fast. Even if you highlight on every other screenful, as I sometimes do, it barely interrupts the flow of your reading.

I’ve yet to discover an e-reading application that lets you highlight text spanning more than one page, except for those that snap to whole-paragraph selection.


Of software

So, what can you mark up? Not always quite what you want.

In iBooks, Kindle, and nook/eReader, you can select any text that fits on the screen—for example, from the middle of one paragraph into the middle of another. As long as you can run your finger over it, it’s yours.

In Kobo’s app, however, you can select text from multiple paragraphs only if you grab the entire paragraphs—um, maybe. If one of those paragraphs runs over to the next screenful, your selection might end up including just part of it. Or you might get all of both paragraphs. Or, as I mentioned in my gripe to them and the Interverse two weeks ago, sometimes the area you’ve selected ends up not being what gets annotated at all—you get some random word from elsewhere on the screen, no matter how carefully nor how many times you select the desired text. And then, when you finally get the text selected and try to add a note, the app crashes. To quote a song by my friend Lucy Foley,

Oh, it’s a tangle, oh, it’s a gamble
Oh, it’s a gamble, oh, it’s a handful

Maybe Kobo could license it as a jingle . . . This kind of buggy mayhem is why, until they added those Reading Life gimcracks, Kobo’s reader was my dead-last choice. Behold the power of colorful data!

Of squishyware

So much for the precision of the software. Now how about the precision of the user?

Another reason I prefer the eReader/nook interface is that all other reading apps use what I gather is the iOS-standard method of text selection:

  1. long press to enter selection mode, which by default selects the entirety of the nearest word, then
  2. drag the tiny selection handles if you want to choose more than one word.

Kobo iPhone app: toolbar overlapping selection handleThat’s all fine and nice if you have small, steady fingers and the app developers have taken care not to overlap those tiny selection handles with the selection toolbar. Seems like a big duh, but the latter condition is not always met: in this screenshot of Kobo’s app, the toolbar overlaps the bottom selection handle. Good luck expanding that selection further down the page . . .

I happen to have an intermittent hand tremor—might be hereditary, or might have been brought on by brain damage in graduate school; exacerbated by lack of sleep, caffeine, slow creep toward death, etc. Whatever the cause, on a bad day, I can’t tap those handles to save my life. I’m sure that sometimes other people on my subway car assume I’m playing some kind of game on my iPod, because I keep tapping the screen, dragging, tapping, dragging, tapping, dragging, and looking more and more frustrated, as I try repeatedly to highlight the words I want. It’s not a very disability-tolerant interface.


What if you’re an even more obsessive annotator than I am? What if, when you mark up your e-books, you want to flag different parts of the text in different colors, like you used to do in college, with your pile of multicolored highlighter pens? I honor you, my dorktastic friend. Perhaps try iBooks.

So far, iBooks is the only e-reading app I’ve seen that lets you choose the colors of highlights and annotations. By default, all highlights are the canonical yellow (with a wavy edge and uneven opacity, so it looks just like you used a real highlighter pen! one of the few instances in which I find iBooks’s kitschy emulation of paper books sweet rather than annoying), but once you have highlighted a passage, you can tap the text again to choose the color. If you’ve attached a note, that note also takes on the color of the highlight.

iBooks for iPhone: Change highlight color iBooks for iPhone: Select highlight color
iBooks for iPhone: pink highlight iBooks for iPhone: green highlight and note

nook for iPhone: highlight color in a themeYour color preference then sticks for all subsequent highlights and notes, until you change it again.

The nook app allows you to change the color of your highlights, but only on a document-wide basis; it’s among the theme options. Better than nothing.


Most e-reading apps allow some kind of screenful-level bookmarking, typically styled as a dog-eared page. Not very interesting or useful, in my opinion—I use it only when I want to skip back in a book I’m in the middle of and am afraid I’ll lose my place; as soon as I return to where I left off, I delete the bookmark.

iBooks for iPhone: bookmark, with tools showing Kindle for iPhone: highlight, note, and dogear Kobo for iPhone: highlight, note, and dogear nook for iPhone: highlight and dogear

If you use this kind of marker, I’d love to know what for. Leave a comment!

Annotation Management

Once you’ve marked stuff up, how can you access your notes, highlights, and dogeared pages?

Ha! What a ridiculous question! Why would anyone want to do that?!

Right now, every e-reading app except Kindle follows the Roach Motel Model of Annotation: the notes check in, but they don’t check out.

In iBooks, Kobo, and nook, you can view your annotations only when you have that particular e-book open. You cannot print them, nor can you copy them out to paste them into another application.

Amazon.com is the exception in the area of annotation retrieval, allowing you to view your notes and highlights on the Web at https://kindle.amazon.com/your_highlights, from which you can cut and paste them anywhere you want. Of course, they also do annoying things like show perfect strangers each other’s annotations (you can turn it off but shouldn’t have to), and limit the number of highlights you can make within a given book (or, rather, publishers set the limits, and then Amazon implements those limits in what I think is a boneheaded way). Not every highlight is meant to be shared.

In iBooks, you can delete annotations from the overview screen.

iBooks for iPhone: annotation management iBooks for iPhone: deleting an annotation

Kobo for iPhone: deleting a noteIn Kobo’s feckless app, you can delete notes by editing the note and tapping the trashcan icon, but you can’t delete a highlight once you’ve added it. It’s with the book forever. Which is particularly annoying given the app’s previously mentioned tendency to highlight the wrong text.

nook for iPhone: notes & highlights overview nook for iPhone: bookmarks overview

In the nook app, you must jump to each individual annotation to delete it.

The roaring silence

At the beginning of this post, when I listed the applications I’d be examining in this series, I included Google Books, yet I haven’t mentioned it once since. What gives?!

Well, Google Books doesn’t have any annotation tools whatsoever.

So there.

To be continued . . .


Watch this space!

Colophon: The book shown in the screenshots throughout this post is Bella Andre’s Ecstasy, which I chose partly because it’s free on multiple platforms (Kindle, iBooks, Sony, Kobo) and partly to annoy @muttinmall, who asked me to write this piece.

  1. Note that I don’t just say, “If the designer is doing his or her job,” because sometimes the designer is asked to adhere to nasty size and page-count specifications. []

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