Where is the Perfect eBook Reader?

For quite a while, I’ve wrangled with the challenge of physical books versus eBooks. On one hand, physical books just look nice on a shelf, especially if they are nice books to begin with. Plus, physical books are easy to lend when someone asks me if I have a suggestion on a good book on social media marketing, or content strategy. On the other hand, I can carry thousands of eBooks on my tablet and have them anywhere, any time. As time has gone on, eBooks are slowly winning out more and more for me.

Caveat: I’m writing this as someone that has no problem at all with long term reading on backlit tablet screens, as opposed to e-ink devices. I understand some folks can have issues there, and that sucks, so understand my viewpoint is coming from that bias.

Kinda ugly, but gets the job done.

Kinda ugly, but gets the job done.

But, that creates a second issue. Finding a good reader. On the desktop, that’s easy(ish), partly because I don’t actually read them on my desktop. All I need to do on my desktop is keep them organized for the most part. For that, Calibre is king (aside: if you’re doing eBook authoring, check out Sigil). It manages all the eBooks I have, including if I have them in multiple formats, lets me categorize and tag them, and finally rate them when I’m done. This, apart from all its other features like converting, exporting, and a crap ton more. I’ve used Calibre for probably 4-5 years now, and have yet to find a better app functionally, even though the application isn’t the sexiest thing it could be.

The problem is, that’s only one piece of a very large puzzle. File management, regardless of if it’s books, music, documents, or pictures is a generally well understood problem. The real issue is consumption. While Calibre is fine for management, there is no mobile reader component (it does have an internal reader function for desktop, but it’s pretty meh), forcing you to jump through hoops of other apps and plugins for library access and synchronization. I store my library on Google Drive, which sort of helps, but not entirely.

Amazon has tried to tackle this, of course. My wife has and loves her Kindle. I’m of something of a different mind though. I feel like the age of the single purpose reader device came and went long ago. I remain baffled by the fact that Amazon can sell a dedicated eReader for more than the price a basic (and considerably more useful) tablet. And somewhat more pressing that that, all of this is done within the confines of a walled garden. I get that the e-ink screen is obviously superior for long term reading and all that, but that’s a single advantage in a sea of disadvantages. Basic Kindles still pretty much suck at PDF books, or anything that’s highly illustrated (or color), unless you’re using the Kindle Fire, at which point, you using a tablet anyway and will fall into the area I’ll talk about in a couple paragraphs.

Wait for it...

Wait for it…

It’s not that I’m against eBook DRM by itself, but I am against being forced to use Amazon in perpetuity to read the books I got there (bought, not rented, not licensed, despite whatever wording vendors would like us to swallow. That’s bullshit, and they know it’s bullshit, but they get away with it because money). Google has tried to address this. While very similar to Amazon, they’ve modeled their book utility on their music platform, allowing you to upload and synchronize media you already own (that isn’t locked away in Amazon or iBooks anyway – and all of this isn’t to excuse Google’s own walled garden of eBook sales). I know Google isn’t appreciably different from Amazon or Apple in all this, and I’m splitting some hairs. But they’re so close to having a great tool, yet so far. Google Music lets you edit music ID3 details in case it’s entered wrong or they read it wrong. Google Books, however, offers no such ability. This is made worse by the fact that in my experience, it frequently fails to import book meta data correctly. I wanted to give you a screenshot of the “editing” ability of book data, but as you can see in the screenshot I was able to take while writing, all I was able to get was the loading screen for Play Books (sorry if I use “Play Books” and “Google Books” interchangeably here). It never loaded my library. Super useful, Google.

Aldiko on Android

Aldiko on Android

I’ve come to use and mostly love Aldiko as my mobile reader. From a reader standpoint, it’s pretty fantastic at balancing usability, with simplicity and flexibility. I find it a bit more powerful that Google Books (when it’s working), without that power getting in the way of the experience. Of course, it has no desktop or web app counterpart. And it still requires me to bridge the gap between it and Calibre. And, most painfully, it doesn’t sync. Something as simple as native Google Drive integration could solve such a problem, but they don’t offer it (as of this writing). But at least it works otherwise. There is an option of Google DRM integration, but I couldn’t get it to work, so I can’t actually tell if it works to use Play Books as a sync bridge or not. Instead, I’m using Calibre, Aldiko, Google Drive, and Calibre Cloud to get the experience I want. There is another tool, which is still a separate app, that handles the syncing of Aldiko across devices but requires you to root your device. More hoops to jump through that I could do, but no average user could or would.

And so here I am, sitting between a mess of unnecessarily sloppy “solutions” and application piping to what should be such a simple problem. It’s 2016 and I can’t just read my eBooks the way I can listen to my music or watch my movies unless I’m willing to lock myself into a single vendor, or juggle walled gardens to get the best prices on various books. This all begs the question, where is the perfect eBook reader? Why hasn’t this problem been solved? I look at Aldiko and can’t help but think, one basic feature would make it perfect. So where is it? I look at Play Books and can’t help but think, one basic feature would make it perfect. So where is it?

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