Tech Review: Play Books app for Android OS
- Category: Mobile application
- Test device: Galaxy Note 2
- OS version: Android 4.1.2
- App version / last updated: June 26, 2013
- Developer/Maker: Google
- Available in landscape & portrait orientation? Yes
- e-ink/screen technology: Color capacitive touchscreen (device-dependent)
- Formats supported: epub, pdf
- Can read DRM content: no
- Price: Free
- Available at: Google Play Store
There are three main menu options: Read Now, My Library, and Shop.
Read Now is the screen I use most of the time. It automatically shows your most recently added or viewed books in a Pinterest-style layout, which makes it a breeze to quickly open the app and tap whichever book suits your fancy. This is the also the default launch screen for the app when starting from an “off” state. The books are always listed reverse-chronologically by the last time they were either added to your library or opened on the app, so when you open a book then go back to the Read Now screen, the book you just opened will slide into the first position (if it wasn’t already there). The sliding animation is slick and adds to the user experience. Below your short-list of recent books, the app also gives you a list of “Recommended for you” books.
This shows a gallery-style listing of your library, with three sort options: All books, Uploads, and Purchases. You can easily scroll up and down through your book list and view the covers, titles, authors, and pin states. You can also tap the triple-vertical-dot icon on a book to remove it from your library.
Selecting the Shop option launches the Google Play app. This action will also happen from any other “Shop” button or link you select within the app.
Adding to your library
The Play Books app accepts two types of files in your library: epub and pdf
Here’s how to move a file to your library:
- On your laptop/desktop computer, sign into your google account then navigate to http://play.google.com/books
- The default view is your existing library, so click the Uploads left nav menu option
- Once on the Uploads screen, open a folder on your machine that has the books you want to upload saved, then drag them (individually or as a group) onto an empty area of the Uploads page.
It may take a few minutes to process, depending on the speed of your internet connection, but shortly you should be able to open and read the books directly on the screen with fairly negligible lag time. Once a book is in your library, it is available to you via ANY device you can connect to play.google.com/books with, including this dedicated app.
The reading experience
From the pages of a book you’ve opened, you can hit the softkey menu button on your device and choose “Contents” to see a list of Chapters, Bookmarks, and Notes for easy navigation.
Bookmarks and notes
Bookmarking is easy. Simply tap the top right of a page and watch the little red animated bookmark slide into place. Tap it again to remove it.
Making notes is also easy. Hold-tap on a word you want to associate with your note until it appears highlighted with little handles. You can drag the handles forward and backward to highlight whatever text on the current page you would like to associate with your note. You can also choose from four highlight colors and quickly add a note from the top menu that appears with the highlight action.
Any notes or highlights you make on your app will also propogate across all your cloud devices and apps that support Google Play Books.
HUD (heads-up informational display)
The app allows you to easily move through large sections of the book by tapping the center of the screen to show the heads-up info display, then dragging the bottom slider to the left or right. As you drag the slider, it shows you the page and chapter you’ll be landing on for easy reference.
Turning a page is a satisfying visual experience. Maybe not quite as satisfying as iBook’s super malleable and realistic page-turning animation, but still fairly pleasant and a little addicting.
Search is also pretty robust. When you search from within a book (using the magnifying glass icon on the HUD overlay), a list of all the matching occurrences in the book are shown and you can tap on one to go straight to it, causing the search text to appear highlighted on the page. If you search from one of the main menu screens, you’ll see two different results. First, while you’re typing, a suggestion menu will drop down and show you possible matches from your library. If you don’t choose to tap any of those suggestions and tap the ‘go’ softkey instead, the app will launch the Google Play store to search for a matching book there.
Customizing your display
From the softkey menu button from within a book, you can choose “Display Options” to change just about anything about the visual appearance of the app.
Note that when on one of the main menu screens or in landscape orientation within a book, you won’t be able to see the Display Options menu.
Here are a few of the options available:
- Theme: Day, Night, Sepia
- Typeface: Default, Sans, Serif, Merriweather, Sorts Mill Goudy, Vollkorn
- Text Alignment: Default, Left, Justify
- Brightness: Auto, variable setting slider
- Font size: “T-” and “T+” buttons to make the text larger or smaller
- Line height: buttons to add space between lines of text or move them closer together
|Options, ‘Night’ view||‘Day’ view||Bookmark, ‘Sepia’ view||Add a note|
Bells & whistles
My favorite feature on this app, and the reason I started using it to begin with, is it’s “Read Aloud” setting. Now, let me just start off by saying…
Read Aloud is very similar to Kindle’s Text-To-Speech (TTS) in that is has a robotic-sounding voice. WARNING: This is not for everyone! The voice mispronounces words fairly often and does not allow you to choose different ‘voices’ (unlike Kindle’s male/female voice). You CAN change the accent and speed of the voice in the Accessibility Settings of the device, however (you’ll need to navigate outside the app to do this – see the steps below). The Read Aloud feature will appeal most to readers who like to enjoy their books while doing things that require the use of their hands and eyes for some other task, but either don’t enjoy or don’t want to invest in audio books. This app is handy for people who are annoyed at Amazon for taking TTS out of the newer Kindle models and want their phone to read to them without having to resort to carrying around an extra device. Read Aloud is also great for people who are visually impaired (and is likely the original intended use of the feature). If the above statements do not appeal to you, move on to the next section. Nothing to see here, folks!
Still here? Ok, I’ll assume you’re sticking it out because you’re interested in utilizing this feature, so there’s more you need to know. If you’re a Kindle TTS user looking for an easy alternative, this option might be a little more work than you’re used to. If you can get it to work for you without too much trouble, then you’ll really enjoy it, but when it doesn’t work it can be very frustrating. Here’s how to turn it on…
- Go into the general Settings of your phone (from your home screen or pull-down quick menu) and navigate to the Accessibility menu.
- Under the Services subsection (note that these directions may be different for some devices!), select TalkBack and turn it on.
- Be forewarned that this will get very annoying very fast as it tells you every single action you are taking on the device! I recommend muting the phone during this part of the procedure. Note also that you may be prompted to allow the phone to go into “double tap” mode. I highly recommend against this as it requires you to double tap for every screen interaction and scrolling will require four fingers swiping together. Seriously annoying.
- Now that we’ve gotten TalkBack turned on, go back to your Play Books app and open your book.
- Tap the softkey menu button and choose Read Aloud (don’t forget to turn your volume back up if you muted it!). This should highlight a passage on your open page and start reading it aloud.
- To stop the voice simply tap the menu softkey again and turn off Read Aloud, then go back into Settings and turn off TalkBack.
I’ve found several glitches with this process. Sometimes no audio happens even when the app is highlighting text and appears to be progressing through the pages. Sometimes it will randomly pause for long periods without notice. You can usually reset the voice by tapping the screen to pause it then tapping it to start it back up again. I’ve also had it read to me when I reopened the app AFTER turning OFF TalkBack, which could be potentially disastrous if you are at work and you’ve been listening to an erotica book (yep, that happened!). So all-in-all that sounds like a fairly bad experience, but if you’re looking for a Kindle alternative as an app that you can carry along with your phone (instead of a completely separate device), then this is your only other option (as far as I know, as of July 2013).
Features that rock
Here are a few rockin’ reasons to check out this app!
- If you minimize the app while you have a book open, it will take you back to the same spot you left off when you return to the app. Note that I’m talking about returning from background-ing the app (Home key to see your home screens or switching to another open app), not completely shutting it down (force quit in Settings, or restarting your device); when launching from the “off” state, the app defaults to the Read Now screen.
- If you read on multiple devices like, say, your laptop screen while on the couch at night and the app on your phone while riding in the car… and you have an active internet connection when you exit the app… Google keeps track of where you were in the book and offers to skip you to that location on the next device you open the book on. If you’re familiar with Kindle’s Whispersync service, it works the same way and is awfully handy for people who need easy access to their books everywhere they go!
- On the menu screens where the covers are displayed, there are little blue pins. They’re quite cute and will probably tempt you to tap one just to see what it does. Pinning a book makes the entire book available to you instantly and doesn’t require you to have an active internet connection to open and read a book that wasn’t already active.
- Multiple display options keep things interesting and allow you to customize your reading experience to your personal needs.
- Storing books online means you don’t have to clog up your device’s storage space with books you aren’t reading.
- Because you can add your own books to your library, you have the ultimate freedom of choice in where you buy your books. Some booksellers (read: Amazon) may present the less-tech-savvy a challenge, but the determined reader will find a way to make even mobi books work! (don’t ask, that’s for a whole other post!)
- The app is responsive and slick, rivalling Kindle’s dedicated Android app.
- It will read to you!! You don’t have to carry around that antiquated Kindle anymore folks, this will do text-to-speech nearly as well!
The not-so stellar
A few reasons to reconsider before installing the app and investing time in building your library…
- Books are not available offline without pinning them first. As far as downsides go, this isn’t really a big one, just something you need to know in advance. so you can prepare for it if there’s a chance you might be without internet access (meaning wifi or 3G/4G, etc) during a time you may want to read.
- The downside to pinning is it’s not easy to tell just what the purpose of those pins is at first glance. Easy once you get it, but there’s no tutorial or guide that says “hey, you should tap me so you can read this book offline!”
- I’d rather the Search function from the main menus didn’t take me the Play store automatically. If it searched my library first then offered me the choice to launch the Play store via button tap, that user experience would be much less intrusive. That said, because Search does show a suggestion list from my library while I type in my search term, it’s really a trivial complaint.
- The books shown in the “Recommended for you” section didn’t overwhelm me. Everything shown was very high profile and wouldn’t offer me insight into discovering hidden gems or lesser known authors. Amazon apps and devices are definitely better with recommendations.
- Selecting the “Shop” button doesn’t take me directly to the Play Books subsection. Why not? If I entered the Play store via the Books app, wouldn’t it logically follow that I am most interested in books rather than random apps, music, games, or magazines?
- Finishing a book doesn’t give any sort of social media action like, say, tweeting about your progress or posting on Facebook that you finished the book. While not at all a necessary functionality for the app, it would have been a nice touch for bibliophiles who love to shout their faves to the social stratosphere.
- You cannot manually add books to your library by plugging in your phone and dragging files to a folder on the device. You MUST use the web interface. This is a negative, but also a positive since it keeps your library organized all the time. The downside is you have to do this from a laptop/desktop computer and cannot add new personal items to your library from your mobile device. You can, of course, still purchase new items from the Play store via the app.
- While Read Aloud is a fantastic feature, it is coupled with the excessively annoying TalkBack setting and may drive you to drinking, madness, and complete auditory intolerance!
If you use epub or pdf files (or are tech savvy enough to convert your other format files), and like the idea of a simple, sleek cloud reader app, Play Books is a great choice. Give that Kindle or Nook app a week off and take a test drive with Google‘s newest step toward complete world domination!
- General reading experience: A
- Page-turn experience: A
- Readability & customization options: A
- Offline reading experience: B+
- Cover display: A
- Ease of adding books to the library: B-
- Bells & whistles: B
- Storage space: A+