What's the best e-reader app to use on a smartphone?

Who needs a library when you can tap into a virtual one on your smartphone?
Who needs a library when you can tap into a virtual one on your smartphone?
Kazuhiro Tanda/Taxi Japan/Getty Images

A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that nearly one in five Americans now owns an e-reader device such as a Kindle or a Nook, and it's easy to conclude from that that those gadgets are revolutionizing how we read [source: Pew]. But while e-readers have a lot of wonderful advantages -- from the big bright pages and sharp adjustable fonts, to the ability to download just about any book in seconds -- they've still got some catching up to do with that technological marvel of a previous era, the paperback [source: Trubek]. In contrast to the old-fashioned paperback, which you could get for the price of a pack of gum, the 3G version of one of those slick new Kindle Paperwhites, for example, will cost you $199, in addition to the price of each book you download [source: Adhikari ]. And while e-readers aren't that much bigger than an old-fashioned paperback, they're too big and stiff to fit into your pants or jacket pocket comfortably and tricky to hold onto while you're hanging on a subway strap or standing in line at the supermarket. For the ultimate convenience, what you really need is an e-reader that's more like a cheap paperback.

And while you may not realize it, there already is such a miraculous device; in fact, you probably have one in your pocket right now. According to the Pew survey, 29 percent of the people who read e-books read them on their smartphones, instead of on an e-reader or a tablet computer like the iPad [source: Pew]. If you think the idea of reading an entire book on an iPhone or an Android device seems a little, well, weird, consider this: In Japan, there's a popular genre of "cellphone novels" that are actually written on phones by part-time literati who tap out prose with their thumbs while commuting on trains [source: Onishi].

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Truth is, smartphone screens are not only big enough and bright enough for reading, but the experience is surprisingly pleasant, thanks to a generation of sophisticated and highly functional e-reader apps. Like phones, though, e-reader apps are not one-size-fits-all. So, which is best for you?

Two Popular E-reader Phone Apps

Now, Kindle offers an e-reader app -- so you don't even have to buy a Kindle Fire, if you prefer reading on your smartphone.
Now, Kindle offers an e-reader app -- so you don't even have to buy a Kindle Fire, if you prefer reading on your smartphone.
Courtesy Amazon.com Inc.

The good news about e-reader apps for smartphones is that you have a selection to pick from. Most are available in multiple phone formats and allow you to adjust the page background and font size, and to sync your books with the different devices you own [source: Biersdorfer]. Here are two of the most popular apps:

  • Amazon Kindle for phones: Kindle, the most popular e-reader device brand, also offers an e-reader phone app that works on the widest range of operating systems -- iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. All of them offer Amazon's ingenious Whispersync feature, which will automatically save and sync your bookmarks, notes, highlights and the last page read across multiple devices. That way, if you start out reading a book on your laptop or Kindle at home, you can pick up where you left off on your phone later. The Kindle app gives you access to 1 million Kindle-format books available for download on the Amazon Web site, including thousands of free titles -- mostly public domain classics like Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." You can also download books available on loan from your local library [source: Amazon.com].
  • Barnes & Noble Nook app: Versions are available for both iPhone and Android phones. The app gives you access to 2.5 million books, magazines and newspapers, and allows you to sample a selection of new releases, bestsellers, classic books and magazines for free for 14 days. Like the Kindle app, if you use the Nook app on both a phone and a tablet or laptop, it will automatically sync your bookmarks and your last page to all your devices. The Android version has an additional feature -- LendMe, which allows you to share your purchases with a friend for a couple of weeks [source: Barnes & Noble].

Those are a couple of good e-reader app options, but which is the best for you?

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Which e-reader app is best for you?

In addition to Kindle and Nook, here are three other popular e-reader apps for phones.

  • Google Books: Google has come up with an interesting alternative, by offering a cloud app that runs in the browser of any smartphone or mobile device (the user just types in the Web address http://m.google.com/books). Google provides access to more than 3 million books, and users can preview extensive portions of most of them for free. When you buy, you can store your purchases in the cloud as well. Google Books also offers a syncing function, so that you can switch devices if necessary, and an ingenious night-reading mode allows you to read white type on a black page [source: Google].
  • Apple iBooks: This app, which runs only on iPhones and other Apple devices, allows you to purchase and read books in the ePub format from Apple's iTunes bookstore, which it stacks on a set of faux-wood shelves. It has similar features to Kindle app, with a few intriguing extras, such as a feature that reads certain books aloud to children [source: Apple].
  • Kobo: This Canadian e-reader maker also offers a mobile app that runs on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices. The Kobo app offers many of the same features as its competitors, such as automatic syncing across devices, multiple fonts and day-or-night modes. In addition to a library of 2.5 million books, Kobo's big allure may be its social networking "Reading Life" feature. It allows users to discuss what they're reading and even to track and compare their reading habits -- such as what times of day they pick up books and how many pages they read -- with their peers [source: Kobo].

So which app is best for you? It depends upon what phone you have, what you're interested in reading, and what features appeal to you the most. The Kindle and Google apps run on the biggest range of devices, so if you have one of the less popular phone formats or think you may switch devices in the future, those may be good choices. If you're looking for the biggest libraries, the Nook, Kobo and Google apps are your best bet. When it comes to familiarity and ease of use, though, Kindle may be the best bet, since so many people also own Kindle e-reader devices.

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Author's Note

I've been reading books on an iPhone since I first got one of the devices in 2010, and I find that it's a near-perfect replacement for the old-fashioned paperback. One thing I like particularly about reading on an iPhone is that I can hold the device in one hand easily and don't have to prop it against the handlebars of my exercise bike; a tablet would get pretty banged up from the vibration. I mostly use the Kindle app, but I'm also a fan of the Google app, in part because I can peruse Google's vast library of out-of-print 18th- and 19th-century books scanned from the collections of university libraries. I use both apps on multiple devices -- a phone, several different PCs and the iPad that I recently purchased.

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Sources

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  • Barnes & Noble. "Nook for Android." Barnsandnoble.com. (Oct. 3, 2012.) http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/nook-for-android/379003595
  • Barnes & Noble. "Nook for iPhone and iPad." Barnesandnoble.com. (Oct. 3, 2012) http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/nook-for-ipad-iphone-ipod-touch/379003589
  • Biersdorfer, J.D. "Tip of the Week: Turning Smartphones Into E-Readers." The New York Times. Aug. 30, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2012) http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/tip-of-the-week-turning-smartphones-into-e-readers
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  • Kobo. "A New World of Social Reading." Kobobooks.com. (Oct. 3, 2012) http://www.kobobooks.com/readinglife
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  • Onishi, Norimitsu. "Thumbs Race as Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular." The New York Times. Jan. 20, 2008. (Oct. 3, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/world/asia/20japan.html?pagewanted=all
  • Pew Research Center. "The Rise of e-Reading." Pew Research Center. April 4, 2012. (Oct. 3, 2012)
  • Trubek, Anne. "How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature." Smithsonian.com. March 31, 2010. (Oct. 3, 2012) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/How-the-Paperback-Novel-Changed-Popular-Literature.html