The Best eBook Reader, Again

I came to the realization a few years ago that the eBook reader Marvin was hands down, the best ePub reader for me.  Very flexible, configurable and some (still) unique features made it well worth the price.

That was, as I mentioned, a few years ago and I started to get a little frustrated with a few important (to me) missing features, such as ePub 3 features like aside (pop-up footnote) support, syncing and a few other small things.  The lack of these was one thing that bothered me.  The fact that the same developer released a second, free ePub reader app that offered these features was even worse, and quite frustrating to those that paid for the original app.

It wasn’t simply an easy task to switch from Marvin to Gerty though.  It wasn’t designed as a generic ePub reader, but rather a sort of book-journaling app.  What was the developer thinking?

It turns out he was thinking.  And working hard.  He was rewriting Marvin from scratch.  Today, he released Marvin 3.  This release adds, and far surpasses my original wish list.  Now there is full iOS9 support, including document picker, spotlight integration and split-screen support.  The icing on the latter part of that particular cake is that there is a second, nearly identical app, called Marvin SxS (“Side by Side”) that lets you have two copies of Marvin installed on the same device and you can have two ePubs open at the same time in devices that support split screen.

Marvin on an iPad
Marvin on an iPad

There are lots of great built-in fonts, whether you are a sans or a serif fan.  There is also OpenDyslexic built in.  If you aren’t satisfied with any of the bundled (and system) fonts, you can sideload others.

Margin size, line spacing, paragraph spacing, indent size are all configurable.  There are themes.  Multiple columns available in both landscape and portrait.  Textshots and auto-bookmarking on close.  Reading location syncs automatically to iCloud (zero-config).  And then there’s annotations – all those things that were in Gerty are now in Marvin 3.  You can of course highlight with a load of colors, but also add notes and photos to a book.   Apparently there are multiple map-viewing modes (you can read maps in here?)

There is native comic book (CBR and CBZ) support, and it’s really, really good.  I have, and love, Chunky Comic Reader, but in practice, there are only a few significant advantages Marvin 3 lacks – PDF comics, landscape for dual-pages and ComicStreamer support.  The page thumbnails (with long-tap to preview the page) are wonderful.  The zig-zag mode is much like Chunky’s “pan” mode.  You can scrub through the comic and have page previews show you where you are.  Given that Chunky is iPad only, I might find myself using Marvin for some of my comic reading, depending on the amount of dual-pages I might expect.

I have only touched the surface.  The only other reader that comes close regarding configurability is Moon+ Reader Pro on Android.

It is not a free upgrade.  There are two in-app-purchases to unlock full screen use and color themes, $3.99 USD for the former and a variety of “tips” for the latter, although you only get certain themes depending on the amount you “tip”. Kinda sounds to me like a purchase and not a tip… The SxS version is a full purchase without IAP unlocks – other than the themes.  To me, the regular IAP (or outright purchase) is well worth the cost.  The colours, not so much, but that is merely an opinion.

The bottom line is, if you’re looking for the best ePub reader, get Marvin 3.

Swype and iOS keyboards

I have experimented with replacement keyboards on Android from time to time.  Though I had SwiftKey installed for a year, I mostly used it as a regular keyboard.

So it wasn’t a real thrill for me when Apple announced third-party keyboards on iOS 8.   I found the iOS keyboard quite good, the design was really good and led to fast and mostly error-free typing.

The problem with most mobile keyboards is text prediction – autocorrect can never get you entirely what you want, and more often than not it was an exercise in frustration.  I didn’t find the iOS 7 predictions too bad, but when iOS 8 came out with QuickType, something happened.  It seemed like the autocorrect was much more aggressive, and more often frustratingly wrong.  So I started looking into third-party keyboards.

Fleksy was my first look, because it was free at release – it is not a huge leap for a new user to start using this keyboard, the keys are in the same spot and you just tap to enter letters.  However, this keyboard relies heavily on prediction.  Most of the time it does really well, but when it gets it wrong, you need to remember and perform a gesture to “unfix” it, or cycle through alternate replacements.  I found this more cumbersome than just using the iOS keyboard and being alert.

SwiftKey was free, and I liked the idea of gesture-based scribble-typing.  I had used it before, so it should be a simple switch, right?  Well, it was, but it still felt very clumsy. Once again, I hadn’t gained anything, it was just different.  I found myself fighting to switch back to the regular iOS keyboard more often.

Now, Swype came to my attention the past day or so, because they made it free.  That’s evidently a great way to get me to try something I am skeptical about.  Well, right away, I was impressed.  Multiple themes, a case-changing keyboard (it shows you the characters in caps when caps is on, etc), nice optional gestures, etc.  Mostly though, I liked the comparatively non-aggressive nature of the text suggestions. When an unusual word comes up, the quick type area allows you to dynamically add the word to your personal dictionary.  The personal dictionary can be edited at any time to remove accidental additions (or those times you were SURE that’s how it was spelled).  It even includes emoji in the autocorrect suggestions!  Just type “smile” and there’s a smiley.   That may seem slower than picking it, but remember you can swipe over the characters in order to kinda sketch out a little scribble that brings a smile to your keyboard, and maybe even to your face.

On top of all that, there’s a special calculator-style numeric keyboard available under the Swype key, if you want to enter numbers more comfortably.

There’s lots going for this keyboard.  Totally worth grabbing for free right now, if the deal is still on, and if not, it still might be a worthwhile investment if it has gone back to its regular 99 cent price.

Freemium Free

It began with an outright refusal to pay extra to play more of a game. Freemium games are now dead to me.

I should define more early what I mean. In this context I don’t mean a full game or app with add-ins, like extra levels or “pro” functionality. I figure each level is very usable and enjoyable, and you get to what you pay for, many times if you so choose.

What I have come to loathe is the “gems”, “crystals” (or its analog) idea, where you have to pay in virtual and also real currency continuously to enjoy the game.

Related to this are repeated notifications that draw you back into the game – clearly to maintain their revenue stream.

I kinda find the fun game experience should do that, don’t you think? For example, PvZ was really fun. I bought it on three platforms and replayed it twice on each. PvZ 2 was really, well, not fun. It was all about maintaining an economy of premium features. You could only enjoy what you could afford in the game. It has thus been deleted.

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The final hanger-on was Real Racing 3. I actually did enjoy this game (when I wasn’t cursing its knife-edged grip modeling). It gave you quite a lot for free, but it still bugged me. I couldn’t repeatedly race my favorite car, because they all have an artificially imposed limit… unless, of course, you pay. Secondly, I grew annoyed at the regular (daily) notifications that “you really should be playing”. Yes I know I can turn these off, but why are they there in the first place? When I needed a few extra gig to upgrade iOS the other day, I finally unloaded it. I hadn’t played it for months anyway.

So with that, I no longer have any freemium games at all on any of my devices. When I see one on the App Store I first look at the in app purchase list and if it has a satchel or truckload or baggie of gems or crystals or whatever, I know it will not add to my fun. Instead, I will play a fantastic game like Minecraft PE or True Skate, or, who knows, maybe I’ll even start PvZ again.

WWDC 2014

Apple had their WWDC keynote today, and announced, well, everything.

Their user experience is converging like I couldn’t have imagined before.  Continuity lets you transfer your work from mobile to desktop just by being close to your Mac.  You can answer your phone from your computer.

Mavericks looks awesome, despite my worry about flattening things.  I was worried it would look like Windows 8, but it looks terrific.  The screen fonts make my eyes sigh.

iOS extensibility has set my head spinning.  I can only imagine my what my Mail / Pocket Informant / Omnifocus workflow will look like early next year.  How will 1Password work with Safari now?  TextExpander and Drafts will now act like steroids for your phone.  Well, even more so.

Not talked about, but on the slide was Wi-Fi calling… which might mean free cell-phone calls.

A few “about time” features, of course, like AirDrop from iOS to OS X, interactive notifications, and reasonable iCloud prices.  I’m not about to gripe that those took so long, because hey, they’re here now.

Swift is an interesting announcement, it might mean much easier app development.  It might be just as easy to do a Swift app as a PhoneGap app now.  We’ll see.

One thing notably missing was offline Siri capability, which is a shame.  I understand why they didn’t do it though.  If they did, I’m certain they would have had to cut off the iPhone 4s and even possibly as far up the chain as the iPad Mini.  This is not something that Apple wants to consider doing right now.  (Update: apparently I completely missed the reference to Siri’s “streaming recognition” which might actually mean offline.)

Did you notice, Google got referenced about, well, once, if you count the big Android onscreen.  There was OneDrive, Box, but no Google Drive icon (interestingly, no Dropbox either).  Bing translate.  Even the webmail used in the demo was Yahoo!  Spotlight is now your go-to search, and that can use whatever engine Apple chooses to use behind the scenes – which is evidently Bing.  They allow you to change your default search provider to DuckDuckGo.  Apple is mad at Google, and now they’re playing hardball.

So much new, it’s going to be hard to wait until fall.

iPad multitasking

I have no idea if this rumor has any substance to it, but it makes me wonder. I have long wanted a way to view, for example, a document alongside a stopwatch, which is a very simplistic use case, I know. Or a Bible app alongside an ePub reader.

If they do this, I can see an easy way to introduce it with a new OS that will immediately work on a) Retina devices and with b) universal apps.

First of all let me restrict this scenario to a 2/3 style layout display, i.e. One primary app and one smaller secondary app.

If you have your iPad in landscape orientation, you have 2048 pixels across. Even if you halved that resolution you could easily display a second app – as the iPhone mode, in portrait… Even with full Retina resolution. You would have 384 horizontal pixels to spare – at least partly for interface and decoration.

I think the big technical issue there would be scaling down a Retina app on a Retina screen to non-Retina resolutions. It could be done, mathematically, but it won’t be nice, as in, Apple-nice. It has precedent though, pre-Retina iPad apps and games looked just OK, and inflated iPhone apps were workable, and it all lit a fire under developers to provide nicer assets for their apps.

The advantage of using this scheme is that most apps will just work. Those devs with two non-Universal apps will have to develop them or the users might have to have both versions installed on the same device. The interface design adaptations already made for a smaller screen space will pay off immediately when used as a secondary app.

This doesn’t answer all the questions though. What about the vertical blank space on the iPhone-app side? It would seem clumsy to leave exactly 400 vertical pixels unused, not to mention the downscaling we would have already seen on the iPad-app side. Some if the groundwork has been done already, though. Apple has been pushing resolution independence for a long time now, and with the exception if games I think most apps are at least partially prepared for it – and games won’t be played split-screen (let the exceptions fly). If they said “your horizontal resolution is no longer a binary choice between 1536 or 2048” or “your “iPhone” apps will have to allow for a 1536 pixel high screen” then developers could adapt without too much concern. Responsive Web developers have had to deal with this for a long time. Universal app developers have had to deal with this for a long time too. It wouldn’t take long.

Kindle

This morning I got an email from Amazon, they are now syncing side loaded documents to their cloud service alongside Amazon-purchased books. I loaded the kindle apps on my iOS devices again and sure enough, the one test book I had uploaded showed up. With a little bit of arguing I got annotations to sync.

I wanted to see how it compared to Google Play Books, as much as I find Google’s offering on on be the most palatable, the apps are a little stale and bare-bones.

The mobile offerings were quite good. Good rendering of fonts and colors in a few books I have, and nice page-turn animations. Highlighting and annotations have a nicer interface than on Google. However… The desktop version is still outdated. No syncing takes place at all to the desktop app… So it’s just about useless to me.

I did find that second hand Kindle readers are dirt cheap though, if I was willing to stay handheld it would be a great solution.

The other thing I could hope for is that Kobo gets the message and opens their doors (even just using third-party cloud storage?). If they do that, and update their desktop app, I would be even happier in their environment.

Right now the reader landscape is so very fragmented, especially with annotations. I hope the next few years brings some sort of standardization so that e-documents will be more durable than they are today.

ToDo done

I went on a little while ago about ToDo apps, and finally decided to jump on Appigo’s ToDo for the Mac.  It’s OK.  It has a few nice features but it’s missing things like adding tasks easily from Mail, or a nice quick systemwide interface using a hotkey.

They do have a systemwide interface, but it’s not a nice one.  It just allows you to enter the title of the task but that’s it.

I may seem negative, I’m not, at least not totally. It has great syncing with ToodleDo which is a biggie (they’re missing the Status field, which could be important).  I’ve simplified my lists considerably because of its design, and I actually think that’s a good thing.  Now I have one for work and one for personal, and use contexts to separate them.

I made a context for work called “Analysis” and I hit that one at the beginning of the day, it’s really seemed to have helped.  I move things to a “Contact” context if it gets to that next step.

Tags are important here but not sure if they translate well to ToodleDo and the iPhone apps I use.  I’ll think that over.