BookShelf iPod 001The last few e-readers I’ve reviewed have been corporate-, or at least company-created—crafted by teams of developers, with a very smooth and polished look to them and, with the exception of eReader, all relative latecomers to the iPhone platform. It’s time to switch things up and take a look at a much older, largely solo effort: Zachary Bedell’s iPhone/iPad universal application BookShelf (v2.3.2968).

If any app could be called the original iPhone e-book reader, BookShelf certainly qualifies. A predecessor, Books 1.0 (not written by Bedell), actually pre-dates Apple’s first iPhone software development kit—it was in one of the unofficial app repositories created by those hardy souls who were jailbreaking their phones to program and run apps before apps were even officially possible.

Originally just a simple unencrypted-MobiPocket-format reader, BookShelf was also the first application to allow downloading Baen Free Library and Webscription books directly from the web and into the reader. Until Baen also made EPUB-format books available and added a Stanza download catalog, BookShelf was essentially the only way to read Webscription books on the iPhone without going to a great deal of extra effort.

It is also the only one of the original “big three” iPhone e-book apps (BookShelf, eReader, Stanza) to get an iPad upgrade. It is still just about the only way to read unencrypted MobiPocket books on the iPhone without running them through Calibre to convert to EPUB—but thanks to some recent changes, it can read EPUB, Plucker, FB2, LIT, and a remarkable number of other formats as well (Update: though, as Bedell notes in a comment below, some of them do have to pass through its PC-based sync conduit first).

For its first couple years, BookShelf was priced at $9.99—pretty high for an iPhone application. It has since come down to $4.99, with a free ad-supported and limited-capacity version called BookShelf Lite. The app is universal, so only need be purchased once for both the iPhone and iPad platforms. But is it still worth the money in this age of iBooks and Kindle Reader? Let’s find out.

(Portions of this review come from my 2008 review of an earlier version, updated to reflect more recent changes.)

Readability

BookShelf iPad 002 BookShelf iPad 001 Bookshelf offers a wide variety of font choices, including Georgia, Hevetica, Marker Felt, and a number of others. There are a couple of them, such as Bodoni 72, on the iPad that aren’t on the iPhone, but in either one there are fonts available I haven’t seen in any other reader program. However, some of these make little sense to use for book reading (for example, “DB LCD Temp”—who wants to read an entire book in pocket calculator font?). Sizes are given in points, ranging from 8 point (tiny) to 40 point (only 5 or 6 lines fit on the screen of an iPhone).

BookShelf iPod 002BookShelf iPad 003 BookShelf has one of the more impressive text presentation options dialogues I’ve seen on any e-book app. Not only font face, size, and color scheme can be set, but also justification, side margins, line spacing (my preference is 135%, less than the 165% default), extra paragraph space, and others. There is a window of sample text at the top of the setup screen so you can see the effect of changes as you make them.

Oddly, BookShelf’s manual (included in the app at download) claims that the app supports automatic hyphenation, but the hyphenation option it describes is missing from the setup screen. Wonder where it went.

It is interesting to note that the justification setting can apparently be overridden by the settings of the e-book file itself—when I downloaded an e-book file directly from Baen, it remained fully justified even though I had changed the selector to left-justification only. On the EPUB e-book files I had recompiled with Calibre to remove full justification for iBooks, setting changes had full effect.

Once these options have been selected, the font faces are readable and quite clear. As with eReader, Bookshelf will rotate the screen to any of the four possible orientations of the device.

Ease of Use

Paging up and down in Bookshelf is done by thumb tapping on either the top or bottom of the screen. The text scrolls up or down in accordance with the direction you tap. (By default, tapping on the bottom pages down; flipping the “Reverse Tap Direction” switch in Settings reverses this.) You can also slide the screen up and down with your finger to scroll only part of the way, just as in Mobile Safari. Tapping in the middle of the screen opens the menu bars.

Unlike essentially every other e-book reading app available for the iPhone or iPad, BookShelf is built on a scrolling metaphor, like a web browser. Ever since the early days of the e-book, some people (such as my friend Travis Butler, who occasionally comments here) have simply preferred to read that way, sliding their thumb up or down to advance the text a line, a paragraph, or page at a time, as they like.

But the fly in the ointment is that, in programming it, Bedell was only allowed to use Apple’s published APIs—and their API for scrolling text, as opposed to page-at-a-time, simply doesn’t work for long segments of text. Bedell could fix it if he were allowed to write his own API, but that is prohibited by the developers’ agreement.

So Bedell does the best he can: each book is loaded in chunks about the size of a printed page (or several iPad screens, or even more iPhone screens). The beginning and end of each chunk is marked with a red arrow, and cannot be finger-slid past but must be tapped to advance to the next or previous chunk.

In the bottom menu bar are options to go to the settings page, lock the screen rotation, view or add bookmarks, and start autoscroll for hands-free reading. (They are all presented in a single row in the iPad version, but there is only room for half of them at a time plus a “more” icon on the iPhone version.)

The upper right menu bar contains a very small meter of progress into the book (so small as to be not really recognizable as such until enough of the book has been read that the progress dot elongates into a bar). Tapping on it brings up a slider that allows you to advance to any point in the book.

Happily, the problem that I mentioned in my prior review about accessing the download screen seems to have been an artifact of a bad installation on my iPhone. I have no such problems now.

In fact, since my previous reviews, BookShelf has gotten considerably less buggy in general, and is now almost entirely usable. And its many configuration options give it a pretty big lead over apps such as iBooks and Kindle Reader where just about all you can change is the font face and size. On the other hand, all those options also make it a lot more complicated than other e-book readers, so it might be a little more confusing to a newer user.

Adding Content

This is one area where BookShelf really shines. Over the years, BookShelf has added the ability to read a number of other formats, including EPUB, to its MobiPocket base.  It should be noted that only non-DRMed files can be loaded into Bookshelf—which means that e-books purchased in Secure Mobipocket or Secure EPUB format will not work unless a way can be found to remove the DRM. (Note that, in the United States, removing the DRM from a purchased book violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.)

Bookshelf comes with a Java-based Bonjour/TCP server application—a stripped-down webserver for e-books. It is simple to set up (though I did have to uninstall and reinstall Bonjour on my Winbox to do so) and to add content which you can access from your LAN or, with a little router configuration, from anywhere on the net.

With a little experimentation, I was easily able to make the e-book directory of my hard drive available (password-protected) and download a book from it onto my device. And since the server contains the entire directory, I do not need to worry about having to manually add every book I want to install.

But the shelfserver is also easy for publishers to integrate. That’s why Baen Books set one up for its Free Library and Webscriptions (which is now built right into the download menu of BookShelf), and there is also a public-domain-books server at iphonebookshelf.com.

BookShelf iPad 003 And BookShelf has also added a number of other downloading options, including an internal browser to allow downloading directly from the web (a considerable improvement from BookShelf’s prior web downloading option, which required using a bookmarklet to rewrite download links on a given page) plus direct links to Feedbooks, ManyBooks, Smashwords, Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and even Dropbox. The iPad version can also be loaded via drag-and-drop via the File Sharing section of the Apps tab of the iPad iTunes sync screen, as with GoodReader.

Suffice it to say that there are about a zillion ways to get an e-book into BookShelf.

Of course, one annoying thing is what happens with the book once it’s there. For some reason downloading a book from an on-line source creates a directory structure within the app—several layers deep. For instance, downloading Conflict of Honors via the Baen Webscription link puts that file four layers deep, in the “Downloads –> www.webscription.net –> Sharon Lee and Steve Miller” folder. That makes it a bit troublesome to keep track of where your books actually are.

Conclusion

I bought BookShelf as soon as I got my old 1st-generation iPod Touch, at its full price of $9.99, because it was basically the only iPhone app that read Baen e-books at that point. It was fairly buggy back then, but it was the only game in town so I put up with it. But since Stanza came out, I largely hadn’t used it until I went back and read a book in it today for the purposes of this review.

The fact is, I prefer the page-turning metaphor of eReader, Stanza, and now Kindle and iBooks. I like tapping to the left or right to jump to the next screen’s worth of text, whether it comes with a fancy page-turning animation or not. (There is a “tap left/right to scroll” option in the text settings menu, but it doesn’t seem to work for me on either the iPod Touch or iPad.) Scrolling up and down is a bit too fiddly for me, and too easy to lose track of where I had been reading before.

I’m not sorry I bought BookShelf, on the whole. It was highly useful before Baen went EPUB, and still looks pretty good today on the iPad—it’s just not the way I prefer to read. At the original price of $9.99, it would be considered a bit too high today, but $4.99 is a more decent price, especially considering that it covers both iPhone and iPad versions (and you can try out the Lite version before you buy to see if you think the paid version would meet your needs).

If you prefer the scrolling model of book reading and would like an EPUB reader that doesn’t try to pretend you’re reading a paper book (or would like to read non-DRM MobiPocket and LIT files without passing them through Calibre first), $4.99 is actually a pretty good deal—especially for the level of control you have over the way the book is displayed. BookShelf has improved a lot over the years, and if it is not necessarily as polished as iBooks, it is nonetheless impressively functional and nearly entirely bug-free.

But for people who don’t care about those things, BookShelf isn’t necessarily that much better than iBooks—and iBooks is free.

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iPhone/iPad e-book app review: BookShelf
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