Barnes & Noble's iPad App: The iPad Ebook War Just Got Real(er)

Barnes & Noble's free eReader app is here, and shockingly, it's probably the best ebook app on the iPad, for now. Better than Kindle, and better than iBooks.

It's kind of a cross between Apple's iBooks app and Amazon's Kindle app, bringing the best (and worst) of both into a single app, with a few extra features.

What's Good (Mostly)

• Like Kindle, it's part of a multi-device platform, so you'll have access to all of the B&N books in your library across your computers, nook, iPad and the new iPhone and Android apps that are coming soon. In theory, it'll sync all of your notes and highlights for each book. (The Mac eReader program is pretty crappy, though, and doesn't actually sync.)

• It has way more books than iBooks, and is catching up to Kindle. B&N's official number is over a million, but half of those are works in the public domain. For instance, it matched our Kindle books spot check exactly, and had the same prices as Kindle for all of those books.

• Barnes & Noble's killer feature, lending books, is fully intact. It worked perfectly, with a notification that I had a book available to borrow when I booted up the app. The trick is finding books that are actually lendable, since not all of them are, and the LendMe badge is easy to miss. The crappy, WTF part is that you actually have to enter a credit card number or already have one on file with B&N in order to read the borrowed book (because their LendMe DRM is tied to your credit card, which sounds a little dicey on the surface of it). Either way, it's a good feature that could be killer if it was done better.

• It's more customisable and powerful than the Kindle app, closer to iBooks: Multiple fonts (eight of 'em, actually, though I don't particularly enjoy any of them, so I've been sticking with Georgia), along with user defined margins and line spacing. (Since the user doesn't always know as well as professional bookmakers, there is an option to use the publisher's settings — though they're not always great either)

• Search for your library, and of course, in books, plus full dictionary powers (unlike Kindle's app)

What's Bad (or Missing)

• The app is kind of blandly ugly, and the UI isn't as pleasant or simple as Kindle. (In part because it's doing more.)

• Buying books shoots you out to the browser, which isn't simply jarring, but the B&N site is not a bag of fun to navigate on the iPad. While Apple might be tying their hands here, preventing them from integrating the store into the app like iBooks, they could at least come up with a custom iPad storefront, a problem Kindle suffers from as well. In fact, a few times I tried to download a sample, it just wouldn't work, so it borders on broken.

• The overall syncing and library management system just isn't as nice as Kindle. Let's face it, Amazon nailed the backend. Also, it's kind of buggy on this build, in that I couldn't find a way to kill Laura Bush's biography or whatever off of my iPad - even resorting to the B&N website, trying to remove the book kept giving me an error.

• The nook's other cool feature, the ability to read full ebooks for free inside of B&N stores, just like browsing books for real, isn't in the iPad app, though B&N says it's coming. In the meantime, if you show the app in-store for the next month, you'll get an access code for a free book

• B&N is squandering part of their advantage in using ePub with Adobe DRM, in that you can't sideload previously purchased books - like if you had a Sony Reader, you could use Adobe's Content Server to transfer DRM'd books you bought from Sony's store to your nook. Not happening with the iPad, and B&N has no idea when it will, though it's "on the roadmap". (Barnes & Noble is working with Adobe on a more interoperable DRM solution to make it happen.)

The Score

Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble's endgoal isn't actually to sell you a slab of plastic and silicon. It's to sell you an ecosystem, to glue you to their platform. That's why you can read their books on iPads, nooks, computers, BlackBerrys, whatever. They don't care about the thing you're reading on, so long as they're selling what you're reading.

Here's the thing, if you're actually trying to decide which ebook ecosystem to buy into, if you haven't already: You should go with the ebook ecosystem that you think will last, since all of your books that aren't free are going to be tied up by DRM, and you don't want to wind up like the suckers who bought music files from Walmart when they shut down their store. Obviously, if you've already bought a nook or Kindle, you've made your decision. )

Barnes & Noble's app is, for many reasons, the best right now. They're using the more universal ePub standard. But do you have any doubt Amazon's going to improve their iPad app? Amazon also owns 80 per cent of the ebook market. Their ecosystem works better on a broader level, though you are very much locked to it, in part because of their proprietary file format. Say what you will about print, but at least your books will still work after the publisher goes out of business. [BN]

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