Comparing Ebook Readers for Your iDevice Article
Here’s a current roundup of the accessibility of ebook readers that work on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. I’ve provided links to the app store for each of them. From that link you can read a description, link directly to the iTunes page for acquiring that app, either on your iDevice directly or from within iTunes and you can also go directly to the app developer’s page. Additionally you can read user reviews.
For this report, I’ve tested all the apps with VoiceOver and chatted with sighted and low-vision friends to get their comments. I’ve also read online reviews to learn something about the app’s layout and features.
Note that as apps get updated, access may improve or disappear. This report is current as of November, 2011. Please comment if you find any inaccuracies.
Works well with either VoiceOver or Zooms. Has some great features for low-vision and learning disabled readers as well. High quality voices are an in-app purchase, so you can have Blio read out loud without even needing VoiceOver. Has a built-in bookstore and supports many smaller publishers with interesting offerings. Supports books with visually rich content, and a variety of views for best experiencing the book.
This free app gives you free access to commercial ebook and audio book titles through your local public library. The epub books it downloads are all text-based, so there is no problem reading them with VoiceOver. The audio books it downloads are MP3, and play within the app. After the loan period expires, the downloaded books are automatically removed from the device; there’s no worry about overdue fees and forgetting to return a book to the library.
Unfortunately, this app has no accessibility features. It currently is not compatible with VoiceOver. Font sizes can be changed so some people with mild visual impairments have found this app easier to see on an iPad than struggling with the low contrast of an actual Kindle ebook reader. The free app does give existing Kindle users a way to get to their content using an iDevice, and its interface is reported to be easy and intuitive. The WhisperSync technology means you can read a book on several devices and not loose your place.
This is the app that compliments the Barnes and Noble Nook reading device, but it too uses a file format which is image-based and hence will not work with VoiceOver. Like Kindle, it synchronizes easily with other Nook apps on the Mac or PC and an existing Nook user will want to have this app on his iDevice so he can read the same content there. Note that Nook does let you change the background color — unlike many other readers, making it easier to adjust contrast for people with minimal visual limitations. Also note that the former EReader app is now discontinued and Nook supposedly supports all the formats that the older Barnes and Noble ereader used to support. In my testing I was disappointed that many accessible commercial ebooks that can be purchased from fictionwise.com are now inaccessible through this Nook interface. If you have a fictionwise bookshelf and use VoiceOver, you’ll probably want to skip this app for now.
Why ibooks, designed by Apple, is not simply included on their devices is a mystery, but at least it is a no-cost and hassle-free download from the app store. iBooks probably gives the best overall reading experience for the VoiceOver user. Access was not an afterthought and you can always swipe down with two fingers to read continuously from wherever you start. Turningg pages, searching, selecting text, using the dictionary or accessing another portion of the book through the table of contents also works quite well visually or through use of VoiceOver. The built-in store has thousands of free classic books and adds new commercial titles every day. Prices tend to be a bit higher than Kindle or Nook, but not as expensive as buying the printed book. Free samples are often 50 pages long. iBooks lets you also read PDF files you can transfer through iTunes or DropBox, and any PDF with underlying text will read fine with VoiceOver. PDF files which have images and no text, will of course not be accessible.
Formerly RFB&D, Learning Ally offers a library of textbooks and professional materials for print-impaired students. These human narrated audio books are recorded by volunteers. You can move to a specific page, heading or chapter using Daisy navigation, but the books contain no text. Many figures, photos and diagrams are described by the volunteer readers. Currently, the app is $19.95. It goes without saying that it works with VoiceOver.
Bookshare is another library for the print-impaired, and at $19.95 their app gives members access to its entire content. You can browse and search the bookshare library from within the app. These books are also Daisy, and let you navigate by page or section, but the quality of the books varies because many were scanned in by members. A growing number of books are superb quality however as they were directly provided by the publishers. These books do not expire and will remain on your device until you delete them. In the United States membership is free for students. The app works with Voiceover but also has built-in higher quality voices which work best when VoiceOver is turned off. For faster response, the built-in voice can be disabled, while VoiceOver is used to read. The app also lets you change fonts and contrast and works well with zooms.
A simple Daisy reader created by the Association for the Blind of Western Australia. Note that these people create unprotected Daisy books for their own patrons that have full text, full audio, but the audio is read by a computerized voice. Their library is open to anyone in any country but they obey the copyright restrictions of your particular region. Because this app is primarily intended for reading the Daisy books they provide, it will not read Daisy variants such as offerings from Bookshare or Learning Ally. Though it supports only the older Daisy 2.2 format, it works well with VoiceOver and is not as complex as other Daisy reading software.
Another Daisy reading app, that does support Bookshare, as well as Daisy from a variety of sources. Very accessible and has been around for two years, so contains fewer bugs than other Daisy reading apps. Note it will not read Daisy from Learning Ally because those titles are in a protected format. Several tutorials are available on the net for using this app with VoiceOver.
A free app which gives you access to thousands of commercial audiobooks all downloadable directly to your device without needing iTunes. You can navigate through these human-read books by section or chapter, but they aren’t Daisy, and there is no text. Many best-sellers, radio documentaries, magazines and commedy as well as a variety of books for children, christian literature and even sexually explicit x-rated reading material. Note that these books must be purchased. The app is quite accessible, and recent improvements have made it even more accessible.
Originally this app offered only free audiobooks: classic literature typically recorded by the Librivox project in the public domain. However they now offer some commercial selections you can purchase. There is both a paid and a free version of this app. It works reasonably well with VoiceOver but is not as easy to use as Audible.
This free app focuses on free or low-cost ebooks and social networking among book readers. It makes it easy to share book passages with friends, for example. Advertises that it gives you access to over a million free books. Seems to work OK with voiceover, but is not as easy to use as some other ebook apps.
This is the oldest of the ebook reading apps and has millions of loyal fans. The built-in store gives you access to all books from Project Gutenberg and other free repositories. It also gives access to many commercial ebook vendors including technical publishers like O’Reilly. All books are in the Epub format and read well with VoiceOver though the interface is not quite as attractive or seamless as iBooks. Stanza is very accessible and efficient to use. It does not have as many customizable display options as other ebook readers, but its companion app for the PC makes it easier to convert most any unprotected ebook on your PC to epub and transfer it directly to your iDevice.
Google has long enabled sighted users to browse both public domain and commercial books online by looking at images of the book’s pages, and by searching for specific text. But only the non-copyrighted books were offered in epub format, which is text-based and accessible to screen reading software. This app which now also offers access to the newly opened google ebook store, seems to follow this pattern. Books that are text-based can be read with VoiceOver but are much easier to access through iBooks, OverDrive or Stanza. Books that are image-based are still not accessible.
Do you know of an app I didn’t mention? Do you spot an error in any of my quick descriptions? Add your comments to this post.
(Deborah Armstrong, Alternate Media Specialist, De Anza College, Cupertino, CA.)