VBookz For iPad: A Text-To-Speech Reader For Public Domain Classics

Near my iPad's iBooks bookshelf sits a new vBookz bookshelf. It looks awfully similar, but it's much better stocked: It has every public domain novel and text-to-speech tech to read them aloud. But a true audiobook text-to-speech is not.

As far as iPad ebook readers go, iBooks is probably the most beautiful one, and in terms of design there are far worse looks an aspiring reader app could ape. And that's just what vBookz did: it took iBooks' look, adding a few flourishes like ribbon bookmarks, and gave it the gift of text-to-speech.

For those who didn't follow Kindle text-to-speech saga, here's the gist: authors didn't think that buying the rights to read their ebooks necessarily gave readers the right to listen to those ebooks. It got messy. But vBookz sidesteps that whole business by trafficking only in public domain books (the ones compromising Project Gutenberg).

Now the public domain isn't just esoteric old stuff - it's good old stuff. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - all of these are in the public domain and included in the vBookz download, and an in-app store lets you seek out and download the other 20,000 ebooks in the public domain. And then it reads them to you.

VBookz' text-to-speech isn't magical. It still sounds like Pride and Prejudice read by a robot, as opposed to your "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen" English teacher. But it's a robot with a good grip on the English language, and as far as these things go, vBookz' text-to-speech is pretty listenable. You can make it read faster or slower, and choose between a man or woman's voice. Impressively, a magnifying bar rolls over the words as they're read, allowing you to follow along with your robo-narrator.

For visually impaired readers, vBookz could be a near-limitless resource. Furthermore, the $US5 app also allows readers to purchase access other languages' public domain collections in-app for $US5 each - potentially a powerful tool for someone learning a second language.

But if you're not already text-to-speech inclined, vBookz probably won't leave you a convert. I still found that it took more effort to listen to the books than to read them myself, and where I might, in some instance, listen to an audiobook, I don't think I'd ever be able to make it through a novel's full text-to-speech recital. And even as an app just for reading public domain texts, it has its limitations: behind the glossy veneer, I encountered issues with laggy page turning and unrecognised button taps. But as I said, for some readers, text-to-speech is profoundly useful, and vBookz has done a fine job of giving it content and polish for the iPad. [iTunes]