Books are amazing. They can thrill, sadden, educate, inspire and amuse with only the words they hold. For bookworms like me, the introduction of e-reading only further broadened the opportunities to be captivated by prose, particularly given the considerable selection of public domain titles which are freely available to download.
There are quite a few apps which provide access to these ebooks, as well as offering the option to sync your reading progress between multiple devices — Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle being the most prominent examples to be found in the Play Store. Over on iOS, though, another e-reading app has been making all the waves.
It goes by the name of Readmill, and it has already gained a cult following. Now, it has landed on Android – but does it have enough to push aside more familiar Play Store offerings?
For the design-savvy developer, e-reading is a difficult market in which to stand out. Yes, fonts can be chosen, margins adjusted and colours played with, but ultimately, text is text.
Or, at least, that is how it appears to the untrained eye.
David Kjelkerud, one of the co-founders of Readmill, tells me that a lot of effort has gone into fine-tuning Readmill’s reading experience: “Initially we did a lot of testing of readability of fonts and so on, which was the groundwork for the typography in Readmill. Android is a different challenge than iOS though, mainly because of the big variety of devices and screen sizes. Every screen size really requires a different setting for the reading experience to be good. I think we have a good start on Android so far, it looks good on most devices, but there’s still improvements we can make. It’s small details that make a big difference.”
I have to say that those small details combine to provide a handsome, highly readable look — which is just as well, given that the default font is the only one provided. Thankfully, there is some adjustability. Five preset font sizes are included, screen brightness can be adjusted from within the app, and a white-on-black Night Mode is available for low-light reading.
A good taste in design is also evident in Readmill’s browsing interface. The library has been styled to mimic a rustic bookshelf, but this is a look implied by the use of flat shapes and textures, rather than the fake-wood attempts at realism seen in other book-related apps.
And plenty of this pretty UI is made especially for Android: “It takes some extra time, but the end result is pretty satisfying”, enthuses Kjelkerud.
But it is not, primarily, Readmill’s look that has garnered popularity over on the other major mobile OS.
The instantly accessible drop-down index and tap-to-turn (the page) feature are both welcome aides to reading, but Readmill is also just as much a social reading network as it is an e-reader. When you start on a book, your reading time is logged, and your Readmill profile (optionally) is updated as you progress.
Readmill’s signature move, though, is Highlighting.
Select any sentence, phrase, or clause that catches the eye, and this option appears in the resulting pop-up, alongside Copy, and Define or Google — Define is displayed for single words, Google for anything longer. Tapping “Highlight” here saves the text, and publishes it on your Readmill profile along with any comments you make. It should make for a great literary conversation starter.
But this is where the Android home of Readmill shows its youth. Version 1.0 was a beta in everything but name, and it was missing Highlighting. This feature was added with the latest update (1.2.2), but it still isn’t the full-fat experience. Having used the iOS version, I miss the opportunity to share Highlights on Twitter and Facebook, and I also miss seeing the Highlights of fellow readers inline. With the Android version, the former option can only be achieved via Readmill’s web interface, and the latter option will only arrive with a future update.
As Kjelkerud points out on Readmill’s official blog, Android users do have one feature to themselves — “the app is engineered to work fully even when you are offline, something that is not in the iOS version yet.”
Happily, no compromises have been made in the implementation of the Explore area, which is Readmill’s bookshop.
Except, unlike a tour of the Kindle Store, everything here is free. The selection is helpfully split into genres, and the quality is high — at the time of writing, Chimero, Woolf and Allen Poe are all prominent.
For more variety, you can also import DRM-free ePubs via Readmill’s website, via the third-party desktop Chrome extension, or directly via the app from your phone’s storage. The last of these has apparently been very popular — “Android users are importing lots of books”, says Kjelkerud.
If viewed as a standalone, Readmill’s Android app is currently nothing more than a pleasant e-reader. No, it doesn’t offer alternative fonts, but it is smooth in operation and nicely designed.
If, however, it is viewed as part of the Readmill platform, it starts to make more sense. It doesn’t have all the tricks of the iOS version yet — although I’m sure they will arrive, in time — but as a solid, synced, social home for mobile reading, Readmill‘s Android app does a solid job.