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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
Mars Report:

Discover a Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software
Part I: Eight Apps for Reading Books

Published October 14th, 2008
iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Updated 11.14.08 to update information for Evernote, Instapaper, and Stanza to their latest versions. Updates to Bookshelf, Bookz, eReader, iSilo, and Readdle are forthcoming.

The iPhone application marketplace now offers a tantalizing variety of tools that can be used as eBook readers and file managers. As I concluded in the September 2008 report, "Without Even Trying, Apple's iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes," the iPhone and iPod Touch hardware finally enables truly practical eBooks, and the software now available for the iPhone platform just clinches the deal.

Having worked with the growing number of these applications since the first started appearing in June, I've concluded that the market is clearly divided into two major objectives:

  • Applications designed primarily for reading text (books), and
  • As I finalized this report, a 20th eReader for the iPhone was released, but is not included here yet. Libris is an application specializing in text reading and has features similar to eReader. Its interface is--how shall I put it?--quite ugly, and so far I've found it rather annoying and somewhat difficult to navigate. However, it does seem to do the job and has a desktop application that's much better than Stanza's for converting documents to PalmDoc format and transferring them to the iPhone.
  • Applications designed primarily for storing and managing documents.

As I compiled notes and usability data on this group of applications, it became clear that trying to cover all 19 different applications for the iPhone that can serve as e-document readers in one article (a 20th was released just as I was finalizing this report) would be a bit much--for me as well as for readers. As a result, this will be the first of two installments of the overall report. (Note: All of these applications, with one exception, work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices going forward.)

This first part covers the following iPhone applications, which are primarily aimed at reading text and HTML documents:

  1. Bookshelf
  2. Bookz
  3. eReader
  4. Evernote
  5. Instapaper
  6. iSilo
  7. ReaddleDocs
  8. Stanza

The second installment will cover applications that specialize in enabling document repositories on the iPhone: Air Sharing, Annotater, Caravan, DataCase, File Magnet, Files, Folders, iStorage, Mobile Finder, TextGuru, and TouchFS.image

It's important to note that like any categories one devises for grouping things, theses two categories of necessity form a Venn Diagram. Some of the applications discussed in this article have characteristics that also make them useful for managing documents, whereas some of the applications that are most useful for managing documents are also quite good at reading text. Hence, my use of the qualifier "primarily" in the article title.

Venn diagram
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Venn diagrams or set diagrams are diagrams that show all hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets (groups of things). Venn diagrams were invented around 1880 by John Venn. They are used in many fields, including set theory, probability, logic, statistics, and computer science.

Although most of these "Reading Text" applications are quite good--especially given how little time they've been in production--one of the frustrating aspects of this crop is that there is no single one that incorporates all of the potentially desirable characteristics. Some of the lacking abilities are, admittedly, optional. However, once you encounter the ability in one app, its absence in others becomes noticeable.

Again, because their overall orientation differs significantly, I found it fairer--and more helpful--to draw up separate sets of basic requirements for the two groups of applications. I'll go into the requirements for the "Document Manager" applications in Part II, but here are the requirements for those reviewed this time (in no particular order):

  • Formats HTML documents appropriately
  • Can organize documents into folders or categories
  • Includes search tool
  • User can add bookmarks within files
  • Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes
  • Lets user customize font faces and sizes
  • Easy to read text
  • Easy to add documents
  • Provides a "full screen" mode
  • Resizes content automatically for both portrait and landscape modes
  • Remembers where you stopped reading

I think most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but let me elaborate on a couple of them.

To traditional publishers of eBooks, use of HTML as a document format has been troublesome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of protecting copyrighted content using HTML. HTML is also perceived as being unable to easily handle included images, which some eBooks require. However, both Apple and Microsoft have developed archival formats for web pages, which encode the text and images into a single package. Although the package itself doesn't securely protect the content (there are "un-archivers" for both formats freely available), doing so is probably not beyond technical feasibility.

Sadly, only one of the applications in this review can handle .webarchive files (which you can create by saving web pages from Safari), which is a shame because this is the ideal, unlicensed format that preserves not only text, but also text formatting, tabular material, and images.

Still, a non-negotiable requirement, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to read and appropriately format HTML. Fortunately, most of the applications in this list can do that.

By "Easy to read text," my main consideration is giving the user some control over the size of type that's displayed. If you can also change the typeface and/or display colors, that's a nice bonus. All of the applications in Part I provide this feature, and it's a major distinguishing factor compared with the applications in Part II, none of which provide any sort of font customization tools.

Finally, after some use I've determined that any e-Reader I'll use must work even if I have no wireless or other network connection. It's simply unreasonable to expect that Internet access will be available during my backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park or while taking in some rays at a remote beach on St. John. And those are just some of the places I'll want to have a good book along with me. A book that simply "stops working" is obviously no good, is it? As a result, I can't recommend some iPhone applications that have otherwise terrific features. My books must work offline. (Frankly, even if you do have wireless Internet, I've found that sometimes the servers hosting my online books report that they're unavailable. When was the last time a book you were reading told you it was busy and couldn't be read right now?)

As the matrix that follows this introduction shows, all 8 of the reviewed applications have something to recommend them. For specialized uses, nearly any one of them would work well. The only exception at this time is iSilo, which is just so badly designed that it's not only hard to navigate, but impossible to use in any practical manner.

For overall usability as a tool for reading books and other textual material, I've found five of the eight good enough to recommend:

Bookshelf and Stanza are both excellent choices for general text reading, though they're quite limited in the range of document formats they support. Stanza has superior annotation capabilities, as well as full-text search that Bookshelf lacks, but Bookshelf makes it much easier to get content onto the iPhone and does a superior job of converting documents. Unfortunately, Stanza's desktop application, still in beta, is unusable for converting non-text document formats (particularly HTML and PDF) to text files, yet it leads users to believe that it can. To use files with Stanza, you really need to convert to plain text format before opening in Stanza Desktop, which is the only way to get personal/business content onto the iPhone.

One of the major weaknesses of both Bookshelf and Stanza is their lack of integration with any kind of commercial e-bookstore. This reflects their current inability to display DRM (digital rights management) content, which of course is the security wrapper commerical bookstores use to protect copyright. This means that your book choices are pretty much limited to public domain classics and other free books. I, however, want a reader that will easily let me buy the latest novels by my favorite authors, and that's the reason eReader is among the recommended applications. eReader has allowed me to completely eliminate reliance on paperbacks and other tree-killing book forms for casual pleasure reading. It's delightful and very reliable for this kind of reading, even though it lacks some of the primary requirements noted earlier. To purchase a book, I log in to the eReader bookstore and buy a book online. This places the book in my online "shelf," and when I launch eReader on my iPhone, the new book is there, waiting to be downloaded.

Readdle is on the recommended list because it's a terrific cross-breed between the text reader category and the document-storage category. Readdle can handle many kinds of native document formats as well as HTML, it excels at folder and file organization, and it has a well integrated web browser with which you can download files to your Readdle library. Readdle users also have an online account, which is a password-protected repository of their files. The repository accepts files through a web form, from email, or, for Mac OS X users, from a simple, drag-and-drop desktop application. Readdle lacks some of the standard features of the best text readers, such as customizable fonts and the ability to remember where you stopped reading. This latter weakness is mitigated, however, by Readdle's excellent bookmark support.

With its latest improvements, Evernote is now one of the applications I recommend in this category. Like ReaddleDocs, Evernote spans the "text reading" and "document management" categories, and it's chock-full of great features for gathering and managing a document and text collection that most of the other applications lack. Besides handling your everyday work or personal documents, Evernote can clip web content (similar to Instapaper) and, using its desktop or web interfaces, be used to create and edit content for the iPhone. Previously, its signature weakness that prevented me from recommending Evernote was its inability to work offline. However, you can now designate "Favorites" to be stored on the iPhone. Unlike any of the other eReader applications for the iPhone, Evernote's desktop software adds greatly to its overall value, with features approaching those of a full-fledged personal information manager. Still, it's not perfect: Evernote doesn't remember where you left off reading, so it isn't good for long documents. In addition, it doesn't support bookmarks or landscape viewing.

I really like Instapaper as well, but its use is limited to clipping web content and can't be used for storing/viewing personal or business documents. That said, Instapaper excels at saving web content for later use, and its ability to specially format HTML content for the iPhone is remarkable. For clipping full articles to read later, nothing beats Instapaper at the moment.

The remainder of this report consists of a summary matrix showing the various capabilities and usability features of each application. In the matrix, a green block indicates that the app fully meets the requirement, and light green means a partial score. The gloss overlay highlights the core requirements for this category, and red blocks show which application fails to meet those requirements.

Following the matrix are separate descriptions of each application, organized into lists of "Special strengths," "Special weaknesses," and "Other notes."

Summary: e-Readers Primarily for Reading

Book- shelf



Ever- note

Insta- paper





Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works without external web account


Easy to set up

Easy to read text

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


Version 1.2.1309, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent for reading text and HTML files, since the Bookshelf reader reformats them for the iPhone display and lets the user select font and font size for viewing.
  • A recent update added welcome support for RTF files (but not for RTFD).
  • Excellent navigation tools. Besides the usual click up and down to move from page to page, Bookshelf now includes a nice slider that lets you skip multiple pages forward or back.
  • Has a customizable auto-scroll mode.
  • Easy to use bookmarks function, and remembers which document you were reading and where you left off.
  • Excellent website support and bug-tracking/feature enhancements section.
Special weaknesses
  • Only supports HTML and text formats, plus some eReader formats (e.g., PalmDocs). Bookshelf tries to convert Word documents, but doesn't do so well enough to be useful.
  • Hyperlinks in HTML files do not work.
  • Doesn't support image files (in the documents I transferred).
  • Although you can organize files into folders prior to transferring them to Bookshelf, after that you can't change the file names, or move them to folders, etc, on the iPhone Touch.
Other notes
  • Uses free Java QuickStart desktop app to move files to iPhone (through a wireless Bonjour connection).


Version 1.3.2, $4.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Integrated full-text search
  • Has cool page-flip animation for turning pages.
  • Excellent support for bookmarks and tags.
  • Portrait or landscape mode, but must be changed manually with the toolbar button (not by tilting device)
  • Very readable with good customization for colors, fonts, and margins.
  • Well integrated web browser includes support for bookmarks.
  • Useful navigation widget lets you see, by percentage, how much of the document you've read and then use the slider to move backward or forward.
  • Provides fine-grained customization for click control. Bookz lets users divide the display into 9 quadrants, each of which can be set to handle next page, previous page, toggle full-screen mode, show bookmarks, or add bookmark.
Special weaknesses
  • Supports only text files for now; displays only source code for HTML.
  • No facility for transferring files from computer. (The idea is that you'll get text files from web downloads or from libraries like Project Gutenberg.)
  • Can't add folders to device's library
  • Uploaded a .txt file to Google's Pages site, but the software wouldn't download it per the developer's instructions
  • Can't activate landscape mode when using the web browser.
  • Web browser offers to download "web pages," but then the application won't display it (except as source code).


Version 1.2, Free

Special strengths
  • Integrated search, including easy tool for finding next instance, and ability specify the starting page for the search.
  • Provides an integrated table of contents, from which you can select the desired chapter.
  • Remembers where you left off reading.
  • For books purchased from a compatible online store, eReader is the best application available today for overall readability.
  • Though it doesn't support the use of folders, eReader has built-in sorting tools for books by name, author, and date.
  • Excellent, customizable navigation controls and automatic full-screen mode (toolbars can be re-summoned with a small swipe).
Special weaknesses
  • Besides its own and some other eReader formats, this app only reads HTML, .rtf, and .txt files, and it removes or simplifies formatting in the process. In my test, images were stored but not viewable in the reader. The $30 eBook Studio software with which you can convert files to palmDoc format is outdated and has limited and rather clunky options for compiling eBooks from source files.
  • eReader's lack of support for common office file formats makes it unsuitable for business use.
  • eReader provides no way to move files to and from your PC/Mac.
  • There's no way to edit titles or other metadata (author, date) about the files in your eReader library.


Version 1.5, Free Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Evernote is a multifunction content manager, capable of storing documents as well as text notes. In addition, Evernote can work with the iPhone or desktop computer to take photo, video, or voice notes. Further, it provides a browser "clipper" that lets you capture web pages (or portions of them) to your Evernote store. You can also email documents to add them to Evernote.
  • In addition to the Evernote iPhone application, Evernote provides a desktop application for both Mac OS X and Windows, as well as similar functionality on the Evernote website (when you log in). The desktop application and website let you do rich-text editing of notes, and even web pages. All three apps let you add and edit text notes to any kind of document.
  • Evernote supports full-text search for PDF, Word, Excel, HTML, and other kinds of documents. In addition to identifying files with search terms in them, the web and desktop versions navigate and display the terms at their locations in the documents. (The iPhone version also displays search terms in HTML files, but has no way to navigate to them.)
  • With Evernote, you can access a wide variety of attributes for the files in your collection, including: Information on modification and creation dates, attachments, source of note, and "To Do" information. All of these attributes can be included with search terms, tags, and notebook names as filters for searches on your document store. Such "smart" searches can be stored for reuse.
  • Evernote is very good for reading most HTML files, since it rewraps them to fit the display. Using the desktop application, you can further customize the display of HTML and text files by changing text fonts and sizes.
Special weaknesses
  • Evernote is one of the few iPhone apps in this category that does not support landscape as well as portrait mode.
  • Evernote's support for PDF viewing is weak. When opening one on the iPhone, Evernote doesn't download and display it automatically. Instead, it shows a small PDF icon that you must press to initiate the download. Once downloaded, Evernote provides no navigation tools or other assistance, so actually reading PDFs is all but impossible.
  • Evernote does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents, nor does it return you to the document--and the location in the document--when you reopen the application.
Other notes
  • To use Evernote, you must set up a password-protected account at the Evernote website. Accounts are free up to 40 MB per month of storage, and there are $5/month and $45/month subscriptions as well.
  • With Evernote, users organize documents into "notebooks." This can only be done via the web or desktop interfaces. Although you can't set up "sub-notebooks," Evernote emphasizes the use of tags, which you can use as an organizing tool. You can add and apply tags in all three versions of Evernote.
  • In setting up notebooks, you can specify "local" notebooks, which are accessible only on your desktop computer, as well as "public" notebooks, which contain documents you can share over the web. The default is "synchronized" notebooks.


Version 1.2, $9.99 (Free version also available) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent readability, since web content is reformatted to a text display on the iPhone.
  • Extremely easy and effective bookmarklet for adding content.
  • Introduced innovative "tilt-scrolling" feature, soon adopted by FileMagnet, which lets you scroll a document without touching the screen.
  • When viewing on the iPhone, you can toggle between the original "web" view, and the reformatted "text" view.
  • Instapaper is an excellent tool for gathering web content for later viewing, and its ability to save just portions of a page is very helpful.
  • The Pro version remembers where you left off reading and returns you there by default.
Special weaknesses
  • No search feature.
  • Only supports HTML and text files.
  • Follows hyperlinks, but frustratingly, can't add web content for later reading from the iPhone itself. Also, the application exits Instapaper when following a link.
  • Files can be manually added if they are located on a web server, but only from the web version of your Instapaper store not from the iPhone application.
  • Can't categorize, tag, or otherwise organize articles, either on the iPhone or on the Instapaper website.
  • Instapaper can't handle articles that are published in multiple "pages," which is the norm on commercial websites nowadays. Each page has to be bookmarked separately. I tried bookmarking the "print" view of an article on Information Week, but Instapaper couldn't access it later. (This isn't true of all such "print" views, however.)
  • Instapaper does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents.
Other notes
  • Instapaper requires registration at the Instapaper website, which is the repository for notes you collect from the web. Instapaper is designed to easily save web pages, or snippets of text from them, for later reading.
  • A $9.99 Pro version is available which adds some useful features such as "tilt scrolling," remembering where you left off reading, and a few others.


Version 1.20, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Nice integrated web browsing, though it's unfortunate you can't save documents you browse to.
  • Full-text search.
  • Conversion from web pages to iSilo format (Palm format) works extremely well in most cases. If the HTML is not well formed or uses "clever" CSS tricks for formatting, the result is not so good. When the HTML result is good, the files are extremely readable.
  • From a converted web page, iSilo easily lets you navigate to other linked pages, displaying them in a likewise quite readable format. (Again, it's not clear why iSilo can't save these other pages directly.)
  • iSilo attempts to build a table of contents from the page's HTML structure. It loads these into the document's Bookmarks menu.
  • iSilo documents can have much richer elements than other eReaders reviewed here, including support for tables, images, linked sections, and others.
  • iSiloX, the desktop tool for converting HTML files to iSilo format, does very well when handling well formatted and structured HTML. It did a remarkably good job, for example, with a long Word document that was opened in Open Office and then saved as HTML. I was impressed that the conversion preserved the formatting of tabular data in the file. The conversion also resulted in a useful set of bookmarks for the document's table of contents.
Special weaknesses
  • Navigation and access to options is confusing. In many cases, the options either don't work or are too difficult to use. For example, the option to change a document's font face doesn't work. In another case, the option to enable auto-scrolling must be activated by navigating to another screen; when you return to the document, any click on the screen deactivates auto-scroll, and you must return to the option screen. Even worse, it's impossible to activate both auto-scroll and full-screen view at the same time, since each activation returns you to do the document view, and each access to the options view turns off the other option.
  • In general, too many useful options are hidden in submenu screens.
  • The application provides no useful navigation tools.
  • iSilo utilizes too many non-standard user interface methods that are therefore nonintuitive. As a result, too often I had to resort either to reading the manual or (more often) consulting the company's online support forum. For example, the function to delete files is "hidden" as a popup menu accessible only if you hold your finger on a document's icon in document view. Once you know this, it works fine, but this means there's an unnecessary learning curve and with it additional user support.
  • Loading one long document converted from a PDF file consistently froze my iPhone, requiring a reboot.


Version 1.0.5, $14.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Supports a variety of native office document and image formats, as well as PalmDoc format.
  • Has a well integrated web browser from which you can bookmark and/or save documents from the web, including web pages.
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Provides a nifty slider for navigation within documents, as well as a good bookmarking tool. Files can be navigated with a click or double-click at top or bottom of the display.
  • Supports "full screen" reading mode.
  • Documents can be organized into folders and into subfolders, both within your Readdle Storage area and on the device. You can also move files into any of the folders on your iPhone.
Special weaknesses
  • Readdle lacks support for RTF (despite what they say), RTFD, web archives, and iWork document formats.
  • Unfortunately, Readdle can't save web documents that you link to from within one of your saved documents only when you manually switch to its integrated browser. This is an oversight that hopefully will be fixed in a future release.
  • No search capabilities.
  • To rename your documents or folders, you must visit your Readdle Storage area online.
Other notes
  • Readdle provides a desktop application (Mac OS X only) for uploading content to Readdle's server, or files can be uploaded with a web browser. You can also email documents to your Readdle account to add them to your library. Content stored on the Readdle server is password-protected.
  • The Readdle iPhone app synchs with your Readdle storage, and files can be read remotely or downloaded for offline reading. Note that the synchronization isn't really that, since changes made in one repository aren't automatically made in the other. For example, deleting a document on your iPhone won't delete it from your online library.
  • Users can register for a free account, which is limited in storage and has some other restrictions. An "optimum" service is $5 a month.


Version 1.5, Free iPhone app, beta Desktop app Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Integrated search.
  • User can group documents within the iPhone app and easily add downloaded files to them.
  • User can increase or decrease font size, adjust color, font. Also customize background color, margins, justification of text. In addition, Stanza provides various other customization preferences, including navigation and display options.
  • The application tries to automatically add chapter information derived from the text, but gives the user no way to change them. However, it does let users add bookmarks to the documents.
  • Stanza's navigation mechanisms are terrific. Besides the chapter and/or bookmark options, Stanza has a slider that's particularly useful for moving within large documents. Navigation from page to page is similar to eReader just a tap on the left or right side of the display slides pages into view.
  • Stanza has a great online library of content available for download. Besides free books available ubiquitously these days for eReaders, Stanza's library includes content from newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, BBC, and Wired. These are all nicely formatted and very readable on the iPhone.
  • Remembers where you left off reading, and even returns you by default to the last document you had open.
  • Version 1.5 introduces some cool visual features that let users add custom images to their books and then displays them in a Cover flow view (when you switch to landscape mode).
Special weaknesses
  • Stanza's support for standard office document formats is very limited. Its desktop software claims to read Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, PalmDoc, Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, HTML, and PDF formats, but in my extensive testing of HTML, RTF, Word, and PDF, Stanza failed to format the content in any reasonable way. Most documents had such badly garbled page elements (headings, line breaks, lists, vertical white space, paragraph breaks) that they were unreadable when transferred to an iPhone.
  • Besides page formatting, Stanza strips all documents of all character formatting (font size, color, style), tabular content, and images.
  • Stanza provides no mechanism for transferring content from the iPhone back to your computer.
  • I was frustrated that although Stanza offers the option of viewing text in left-justified format, all the documents I transferred showed up full-justified. This happened even when I specified left-justification on the Stanza desktop app.
Other notes
  • Stanza relies on a desktop application (currently in beta development) that can be used to open supported files and transfer them wirelessly to the iPhone. The app supports both Mac OS X and Windows. Lexcycle currently plans to charge "a small fee" for the software once released.

The summary table below uses some advanced CSS techniques that aren't yet possible with your browser. WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari browser (for both Windows and Mac), has implemented numerous features of CSS 3.0, as well as pioneered some candidates for new graphics functions using CSS. (For more information on these, see the Mars article on the subject, or visit
In particular, the table uses CSS border-radius (which produces the table's rounded edge), CSS box-shadow (which gives the table a drop shadow), CSS gradient (which produces a gradient in the table headers), and CSS background-size together with background-attachment and background-clip (which lets me automatically resize a small tiled image-- --both horizontally and vertically to fit the various-sized table cells).

Here is a screenshot of how the top part of the table looks in Safari:

Screenshot of table utilizing CSS techniques not available except in Safari
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