Let’s take a look at Google’s stab at the fast-growing eBook market.
Getting BooksYou can buy books from the Google Play Store either on the Web or on Android. You can also upload any ePubs or PDFs that you have, making it a great universal eReader as well.
To find books on the Web, visit play.google.com/books and click on Shop on the left. From here, you’ll get personal recommendations, but you can also scroll down for more specific sections like “Books on the big screen: Spider-Man, Divergent + more” or “Get your LOLs: Deals on funny book you’ll love.”
Buying books on Android is actually done through the Google Play Store, and thePlay Books app will simply redirect you there. The interface is as simple as one would expect from a Google app, with a tabbed interface along the top, and a similar scrollable view to the Web version.
Play Books has actually been a lot better about having popular titles recently, and its collection, while not nearly as large as Amazon’s, will likely have most of the mainstream popular literature out there. Due to the way publishers control their prices, the prices for most eBooks are relatively consistent across online platforms.
Reading On AndroidHaving done most of my reading on my Kindle Paperwhite or Kindle app for Android, I wasn’t expecting much from Play Books. The Kindle app is perfect, I thought; I don’t need Play Books.
But I was wrong: Play Books is a delight to read on, from the refreshingly simple interface to the customizable and smooth reading experience.
The default Read Now screen shows what you were most recently reading, along with recommended books based on what you’ve been reading and what your friends have +1′d. Any eBooks you uploaded will be accessible under My Library by clicking “All books” and selecting “Uploads.”
Items that have been downloaded to your device will have a blue pin in the lower right, identical to the orange visual cues in Google Play Music for Android, the best music player on Android. Using these apps together is a visual treat.
The screen-turning animation in Play Books is delightful. Tapping on the screen or swiping will give a realistic animation of the page being scrunched up and flipped, as shown above. It’s surprisingly smooth and not tacky, really helping to immerse you.
Play Books has the reading experience in fullscreen mode, of course, but a tap on the center of the screen will show your progress along the bottom, the name of the book and author at the top, a search function, and options. Other eReader apps pop up a lot of clutter, but Play Books keeps it simple while still having more customizations available under Options.
You can change the theme from Day, Night, or Sepia; there are several typefaces to choose from; and you can change the text alignment, brightness, font size, and line height. One thing to note, though, is that the margins can’t be changed.
Another feature that is hidden in the settings is Read Aloud. Sure, it’s a clunky robotic voice, but the fluidity is enhanced by checking “High-quality voice” in the settings. This voice is a bit better, and is actually smooth to the point of being tolerable. Be careful, though, because Google warns that it requires a data connection to stream the voice data as you use it.
Reading On The WebAny eBooks uploaded to Play Books or bought from the Play Store can also be accessed online and read in the browser, similar to Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader, which we have reviewed. If you read online or in the app, your progress will sync just as you’d expect. Find all your books at play.google.com/books.
The Web experience falls short of the Android experience, though. You’re stuck with a white background with black text, and no page turning animation, although you can customize the font, font size, line spacing, and justification.
Keeping to its simple style, there’s the title and author in the top left, options in the top right, and a progress bar along the bottom.
Any books that you’ve purchased from the Play Store can be downloaded in ePub or PDF formats for offline viewing. For this, you’ll need a desktop eReading app likeAdobe Digital Editions, which is a free download. Unfortunately, most of the books you download will be locked down under DRM (What is DRM?), depending on if the publisher decided to enable that feature or not.
However, you can’t download any books that you uploaded to Play Books, so you should still keep them backed up somewhere else (find out which cloud service is best for you) if you want to preserve the original ePub or PDF to take to another reading service later.
CompetitorsThe Amazon Kindle app for Android is great, but it only supports books purchased from Amazon that are locked down with Digital Rights Management — even if you can break the DRM.
If you own a .mobi file (Amazon’s proprietary eBook format), say because you created an eBook yourself or downloaded it from Smashwords, you can’t even read that .mobi file in the Kindle app if you have it saved on your Android device, as you can read ePub and PDFs in Play Books. You have to email the .mobi file to the Kindle email that Amazon created and assigned for your Kindle app (found under Kindle’s personal document settings), which will then forward the file to your Kindle app. It’s frustrating to say the least.
Still, if you can live with being trapped in the Amazon ecosystem, it’s a pleasurable reading experience. The app has a Fire OS-like interface while still adhering to Google’s modern design philosophy with the pullout menu on the left. Reading is heavily customizable and books can be read on nearly any device, from the Web to Desktop to Android to iOS.
There are other eBook apps for Android out there that support ePub, including thewonderfully stylish Fabrik, but for comparison’s sake let’s just look at Aldiko, which is probably Play Books’ most popular competitor. We reviewed Aldiko a couple years back, but it’s received so many updates since then that it’s a completely different app with a modern interface and abundance of features.
Despite its new interface, Aldiko’s Android app still doesn’t feel as well put together as Play Books. It’s missing Play Books’ Read Aloud feature, the transition between screens is a boring sideways slide, and ePubs aren’t displayed as well. See below where Play Books is on the left and Aldiko is on the right.
Both apps are set to their default night settings, but only Play Books properly displays the chapter header’s page breaks. While all the font sizes and font types are customizable in both apps, these spacing issues will remain.
Regardless, it doesn’t make the books unreadable, and Aldiko can hold its own as a Play Books alternative for simple ePub or PDF reading. In combination with Calibre, a wonderful eBook management and conversion app, Aldiko could be your all-in-one eReading app for Android if you don’t want to go the Google route.
Keep in mind that the free version is ad-supported, and the premium version with some additional features is $2.99.
ConclusionPlay Books is a solid eReading app, but it still has room for growth.
Maybe in the future they could offer some sort of subscription service for Play Store purchases, like Oyster, the service often called the “Netflix of Books,” orScribd, the all-you-can-read book subscription service in partnership with HarperCollins.
You can download Play Books from the Play Store.
What do you think? Would you consider using Play Books for your eReading, or are you do you prefer a different app? Let us know in the comments!