Taking advantage of the holidays and an anticipated flood of ebook gift purchases, Apple recently released version 1.2 of its free iBooks app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. This latest version includes features that improve both the presentation of books and the user’s ability to manage book collections and notes.
Layout Enhancements -- Those of us who like to read books in iBooks’ landscape/two-up page format, and who also like to bump up the font size for ease of reading, will be happy with the new auto-hyphenation feature, which reduces the number of ugly gaps in lines that have only a few lengthy words. Like full justification, auto-hyphenation can be toggled with a preference in the Settings app. However, if you haven’t updated your iOS device to iOS 4.2, you won’t get the benefit of this feature, which requires the new version of iOS.
In the list of “What’s New in Version 1.2” on the iBooks page in the App Store, Apple also claims that you can “[e]xperience fully illustrated books, from children’s picture books to beautifully designed art books, available for download in the iBookstore.” I’m not quite sure what this means, since even the very first ebook presented to users in iBooks 1.0, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, featured full-color illustrations. However, two screenshots on the App Store page show book pages with text appearing superimposed on an illustrated page background; the illustrations in Milne’s book, by contrast, are presented separate from the text, which appears above and below them.
A quiet change that will be particularly welcome to anyone reading Take Control books (or other heavily linked titles) in iBooks is a new “Back to page X” link that appears in the lower left corner of the page after you follow a link. Now you can follow a link and return to where you were reading easily.
Other under-the-hood improvements (tip of the hat to EPUB expert Liz Castro!) include the capability for publishers to embed fonts into EPUBs (actually available in iBooks 1.1.2, but only revealed under iOS 4.2) and support for page breaks in EPUB files, both of which bring EPUB just a little closer to what’s easy in PDF.
Management Enhancements -- If you’ve been using iBooks for a while, it’s likely that you have begun to acquire far more books than fit on a screen or two of your iBooks library, and have been struggling with arranging them in some coherent order. iBooks 1.2 helps ameliorate bookshelf overload with a new Collections feature. On an iPad, a Collections button replaces the Books/PDF button that appeared across the top of the Library in some previous versions of iBooks; on an iPhone or iPod touch, a button which has the name of the currently displayed book collection serves the same purpose as the iPad’s Collections button. You can tap the button to see a list of all of the book collections you have, and you can tap a collection name to see its books displayed on your Library shelves. The two default collections in iBooks 1.2 are, not surprisingly, Books and PDFs, but those names have become decoupled from their contents: you can now, if you are perverse, put PDFs in your Books collection, and vice versa.
You also use the Collections list to create new collection categories, to delete collections, and to arrange the order in which collections appear. If you delete a collection, you can choose whether the books it contains are removed from your device or returned to the collections from which they originally came.
The order in which you arrange collections is important, especially if you have a lot of collections, or choose to navigate among them by swiping left or right across the bookshelves in your Library instead of choosing them from the Collections list. You probably want to put your most-used collections near the top of the list, and your collection of archived books near the end.
Moving books between collections is simple: tap the Edit button on the Library toolbar and then tap the books you want to move. Each book you tap displays a checkmark badge. Tap Move on the Library toolbar to move the books to a different collection. You can, instead, tap a red Delete button to remove selected books from your Library.
iBooks 1.2 also provides a hidden Search feature: flick down on the Library’s bookshelves to see the Search field that is sequestered just above the top shelf of books. Like an iTunes search, your search results begin to appear on the bookshelves beneath the Search field as soon as you begin typing. You can search for titles and author names; names of categories, such as “fiction,” do not work. (We hope that hiding basic functionality like this does not become an iOS user-interface precedent, given how utterly undiscoverable it makes iBooks’ search feature.)
Notes on Notes -- iBooks has long had the capability to attach user notes to any text selection in a book, but iBooks 1.2 finally gives note-taking readers a way of getting those notes out of iBooks, either via email or in printed form, the latter using the AirPrint capabilities of iOS 4.2.
To email or print a note, tap the Table of Contents button that appears at the top of any book page, and then, in the Table of Contents, tap the new Share button at the top right of the page to choose between printing or emailing the notes in a book. Note that the notes you print or email do not include the selected text to which they are attached, not even in a non-copy-protected book. What you do get is the name of the chapter in which the note appears, the contents of the note, and, at the end of the notes, a general citation with the name of the book, the author, and the publisher.
Bottom Line -- If you have an iOS 4.2 device that can run iBooks, there’s no reason that I can think of not to get this latest version. The 15.2 MB download is free, and the improvements in this version resolve a number of shortcomings in the previous versions. I’d have more to say about the new iBooks, but, well, I’m right near the end of an exciting book, so if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to catch up on.