Sometimes you just don't have room in your bag to carry a paperback, magazine or tablet-sized e-reader device. So why not make use of the smartphone you already have with you? Your Android phone makes a perfectly good e-reader, especially with the right software.
I spent a week using four of the most popular, highly rated e-reader apps in the Google Play Store: Aldiko Book Reader, Cool Reader, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Each app was installed and tested on a Samsung Galaxy Note II, whose 5.5-in. screen strikes a good balance between portability and page size.
Note that we have not included apps that are designed primarily to open content that lives in the cloud, or that are built to focus on a specific shopping source, such as Kindle, Nook and Google Play Books. All of these apps are designed to let you read books that you download directly onto your device.
Each of the four covered here supports multiple e-book formats, multiple typefaces and a variety of text display options.
Aldiko is a serviceable e-reader with moderate ability to customize the reading experience.
If you don't have a book ready to read on your device, Aldiko lets you browse and buy books through Feedbooks and three other online book catalogs, and lets you add additional catalogs by specifying a URL.
Aldiko Book Reader
If you want to read a book that's already on your device, Aldiko lets you browse the device's file system and open ePub and PDF files. If you want Aldiko to save your place between reading sessions, however, you must import the book into Aldiko -- a step the other apps do automatically when you open the book.
Importing a book puts it on a virtual shelf in Aldiko's library, which you can browse by title, author, tag or collection. You can group related documents by defining your own tags and collections -- so you can have collections such as "to read" or "19th century novels," or tags such as "science fiction."
Aldiko comes bundled with a single default font, but you can download a dozen more with one tap. You can adjust font sizes in whole-pixel increments and margins in 10-pixel increments. If the standard black type and white background doesn't appeal to you, you can choose among dozens of pre-selected font and background colors, and save those selections to one of two themes, labeled Day and Night. However, Aldiko doesn't let you create your own colors via selection sliders as the other apps do.
With a book open, a tap in the middle of the screen or on the menu soft key (the common ways to bring up the settings screens for all these apps) displays icons at the bottom that let you view the book's table of contents, change the theme and set the font size. I found Aldiko's menu structure a little confusing, however. For instance, to get to the main configuration options screen, where you can change not only display options but also toggle page numbers and page turn animations, you must tap the font size icon, then tap "More."
In contrast with the other e-reader apps, Aldiko's main screen lacks a status bar that shows you how far you are through a book or chapter. You can set bookmarks that allow you to return to a specific point in a book, but you can access those bookmarks only from within each book (rather than allowing you to see them whether or not the book is open). Aldiko does let you search for a particular phrase or jump to a specific numbered page.
At a Glance
Aldiko Ltd.Versions:Free, Premium ($2.99)Formats supported: ePub, PDFLanguages: 12Pros: Supports PDFs, allows you to sort books into self-defined collectionsCons: Minimal customization options, no status bar
If you long-press to select a word or phrase, you can look it up on the Web (using Google's "define" feature), search for it within the rest of the document or share it via another app. If you have the Premium version, you can also add notes and highlights to selected text -- a feature Moon+ Reader offers in its free version.
Aldiko is light on fancy extras. For instance, it offers only a single page-turning animation -- a sliding page -- that you can toggle on or off. It also lacks any way to customize gestures to control the app, other than letting you choose to either use the volume keys or touch the sides of the screen to turn a page.
Aldiko offers fewer configuration options than the other apps, but if you want to use an e-reader for PDF files, it's the most economical of the four reviewed here, as it's the only one that supports PDF files in a free edition.
Cool Reader is an ambitious e-reader with a text-to-speech feature that none of the other programs offers for free, but it's not the most sophisticated app of the group.
Cool Reader makes books available in several ways from its opening screen, which appears when you start the program (and if no book is already open). You can open the book you're currently reading or any recently read books, or browse for unread books in the file system or in any of seven bundled online catalogs -- or you can add your own. If a book is already open, getting to that screen is a little tricky. You have to tap to bring up the app's pop-up options icons and then tap the one labeled Root.
Cool Reader offers six fonts: one monospace, one serif and four sans serif. You can add additional fonts by placing TTF files in the Fonts directory of your device (according to the Cool Reader manual); similarly, you can add your own background images if none of the 30 provided with the program satisfy you. You can set font size and top, bottom, left, and right margins in single-pixel increments.
The app has a day/night toggle that switches between two sets of font and background settings; the day/night setting can also change the brightness of the screen.
Cool Reader can display a status bar, which it calls a title bar, at the top of the screen -- there's no way to display it at the bottom. You can configure the title bar's typeface, size and color. It can show you (optionally) the book title, page number, page count, chapter marks and percentage read, as well as the device's battery level. (The app displays its Eastern European origin by its use of a comma rather than a decimal point in the percentage-read number). Unfortunately it doesn't show your progress within your current chapter or story, as Moon Reader+ can.
The app also has an optional toolbar (that you can display on either side of the screen) that contains icons that take you to your library, the book's table of contents, search, options and other settings.
When reading, you can choose to use a document's internal style settings, but if you'd rather control styles yourself, Cool Reader gives you direct access to a wide range of format settings for paragraphs and other elements, such as titles and links.
The app also gives you a lot of options for gestures to control your reading experience. Cool Reader divides the screen into a 3x3 grid, and you can specify two actions for each zone, such as next or previous page, forward by 10 pages, or toggle day/night display. You can change screen brightness by flicking up and down on the left or right edge of the screen. You can select text to copy it to the clipboard, find it in the dictionary, add it as a bookmark or search with it. And you can set any of three page-turning animation options.
In Cool Reader, tapping on the center of the screen or the menu button brings up more options than does a similar action in the other programs. You get nine icons that take up the bottom third of the screen, one of which, "More," leads to 10 additional icons. Collectively, these icons let you control the app's operations -- navigate within a book via search, go to a bookmarked page, jump to a particular page or see progress percentage, and more. One of the icons, Options, lets you change the app's settings.
Cool Reader's process for selecting a word or a phrase is awkward. Rather than using a long press, you must tap one of the pop-up icons to toggle selection mode. You highlight your selection, and Cool Reader then displays icons that let you copy the text to the clipboard, look it up in a dictionary, bookmark it, share it or search for it within the document.
Cool Reader bundles links to 10 dictionaries, but you must install any that you want to use.
At a Glance
Vadim LopatinVersion:FreeFormats supported: ePub, Mobi, HTML, DOC/RTF, text, FB2,TCR, CHM, PDBLanguages: 16Pros: Good display customization and gesture control options, bundled manualCons: No indication of progress within chapters, below-average title bar options
The app includes text-to-speech capabilities to read your text to you in a robotic voice. It also has a feature called Autoscroll, but rather than moving the entire screen up at the pace at which you read, it repaints the entire screen with the next page of text -- sort of an automatic super-slo-mo page turn automation.
One nice touch (unusual in a mobile app) is a comprehensive manual that explains the app's concepts, menus and settings. And if you like Cool Reader on your Android phone, you can also download versions that run on Windows and Linux platforms from the app's home page.
Cool Reader offers a broad range of supported e-book formats, top-notch ability to tailor CSS settings and some innovative features, such as its tap zones and text-to-speech. However, it also exhibits surprising awkwardness in its menu arrangement and text selection, making the overall reading experience not quite as smooth as it could be.
FBReader lets you customize your screen display as well as any e-reader, but it's a little light on options for controlling the reading process via gestures.
Unlike the other e-readers listed here, only the Android menu soft key brings up FBReader's settings. Tapping the center of the screen displays a title bar that lets you browse your local and network libraries and the table of contents of the open document. From the library screen you can search for books by recently read, author, title, series or tag -- or browse the file tree.
FBReader comes bundled with eight online catalogs from which you can download books, and an equal number of disabled ones for books in other languages that you can enable by ticking a box on the Manage Catalogs screen. It's also easy to add additional catalogs of your own, if you wish. You can search for a specific title either within each catalog or within all the defined catalogs at once, but the latter search took about a minute and a half to complete on my device.
For the reading window, FBReader offers only four fonts: one monospace, one serif and two sans serif. You can set separate display styles for regular paragraphs, titles, headers, hyperlinks and other types of text. You can set top, bottom, left and right margins in single-pixel increments.
Like other e-readers, FBReader lets you toggle between a day and a night theme. Within each theme, you can customize the colors of not only regular text and background, but also visited and unvisited hyperlink text, selected text, the backgrounds for selections and search results. You can also set the background to one of three wallpapers: sepia, leather or wood. FBReader has three different page-turning animations.
When a document is open, FBReader can show your reading progress with a vertical slider or progress bar, or it can display a horizontal footer that acts as a status bar, showing a reading progress indicator and (optionally) a page number, clock, battery level and TOC marks. You can tap on the status bar to display a slider control to move around in the book. FBReader also displays an optional "action bar" at the top with icons that let you choose another book or move through the current book's table of contents. You can toggle the action bar off for more viewing area.
If you select a word or phrase, you can copy it to your clipboard, look it up, bookmark it or send it to another application. FBReader lets you find bookmarks in a single document or all documents at one time. The app comes bundled with four dictionaries you can choose from.
FBReader has a limited number of gesture settings. You can set whether to turn pages by a screen tap or flip and/or with the device's volume keys, and whether to use a double-tap to bring up a navigation menu.
At a Glance
FBReader.Org Ltd.Version:FreeFormats supported: ePub, Mobi, HTML, DOC/RTF, text, FB2Languages: 30Pros: Many bundled online catalogs, with multi-catalog searchCons: Limited font selection, limited gesture customization
I ran into a couple of minor bugs in FBReader. You're supposed to be able to select a book from an external memory card in the file tree, but tapping the icon for the memory card takes you to internal storage instead. And the setting to hide the status bar didn't do so.
Note: Unlike Aldiko and Moon+, FBReader is available outside of the Android ecosystem; it supports Linux, Mac OS X, Windows, BlackBerry 10 and a variety of lesser-known platforms. (Interestingly, though, it does not have an iOS version.)
I liked reading with FBReader. The Droid Serif font (which the other apps also offer) is rendered nicely, and I could set margins, text spacing and CSS options to make my books easy to assimilate. I didn't mind the app's limited gesture support. FBReader is a great e-reader option that just exhibits slightly less finesse than Moon+ Reader.
Of these four e-reader apps, Moon+ Reader gives you the finest-grained control over display settings and the greatest number of options for configuring control gestures, along with a couple of unusual and useful features.
Moon+ Reader's home screen lets you browse a bookshelf of files you've opened, browse your file system or open a list of five online catalogs, to which you can add your own. The Pro version has a Statistics page that shows the number of books on your shelf, read books, reading hours and pages turned.
The reading experience in Moon+ Reader stacks up to any e-reader and goes even further. The app's status bar displays your reading progress not only for the document as a whole, but also within the current section or chapter. However, I did notice one flaw in document rendering: The blockquote tag in HTML documents is not properly indented. FBReader has the same problem, but Cool Reader gets it right.
Tapping on the center of the screen or pressing the menu button while you're reading a book displays a progress slider at the top of the screen that you can use to move around within a document. At the same time, an icon bar at the bottom lets you change display options, start autoscrolling, access bookmarks and the table of contents, and change all of the app's settings.
Moon+'s settings are grouped into visual options, control options and miscellaneous. The visual options let you choose from among dozens of typefaces, including serif, sans serif and monospace, bold and italic, and non-Latin fonts, many for Indian languages. Sliders let you specify any solid color for the type or background, or you can pick from 10 background images, all of which are suitably muted.
You can adjust font sizes, but unlike the other apps, which seem to measure font size in pixels, Moon+ seems to use points), and lets you adjust fonts in increments of 0.1 points. You can specify the width of the left, right, top and bottom margins in single-pixel increments. The font and margin controls are plus and minus buttons, so you can make things a little bigger or smaller without having to choose a particular number from a list. Also, you can animate page turns in seven different ways, or not at all.
You can save all your visual options as a theme, so different people who use the same device can view books just the way they like. The app comes with a dozen preset themes, rather than the binary day/night choices common in other apps.
The control options let you specify portrait or landscape orientation, or have the software sense which way you're holding the phone. You can also specify actions to take when you tap the screen in different places, press various keys or make finger gestures.
Under "miscellaneous" you'll find options to autoscroll as you read (with five different scrolling methods), keep a line from the previous page when paging, automatically indent the first line of each paragraph and many more.
If you tap on a word or phrase you can copy it, highlight it, attach a note to it, look it up, search for it within the rest of the document, translate it via Google Translate or look it up on Google or Wikipedia. The app bundles the ColorDict dictionary, but you can choose from half a dozen different dictionary options, including specifying a custom online dictionary.
At a Glance
Moon Reader Ltd.Versions:Free, Pro ($4.99)Formats supported: ePub, Mobi, PDF (Pro version only), HTML, text, CHM, CBR, CBZ, UMD, othersLanguages: 40Pros: Interface and gesture settings are highly customizable. Ability to attach notes to words and phrases. Ability to save multiple display themes.Cons: Improper handling of blockquote tag in HTML documents
Moon+ also lets you add bookmarks and, as with FBReader, you can view all the bookmarks in one or all of your documents from a single screen and go to any with a tap.
Moon+ Reader Pro, which costs $4.99, adds support for PDF files, text-to-speech and more. It can also integrate with Dropbox or Google Drive, so that if you sync your e-books to those repositories, the app can open them without your having to take the extra step of downloading them to your device.
Moon+ Reader was my favorite of these four apps. I was able to find a typeface I liked better than any in the other apps, and I liked its status bar best. I also appreciated the fact that bringing up settings while reading a book presented icons that let me quickly perform the actions that I would be most likely to take.
Some bibliophiles eschew e-readers because, they say, they like the feel of a book and the act of turning pages. If you're one of these individuals, you may be surprised at how quickly you get used to the convenience of a library in your pocket, the ease of turning pages with a single tap and the small pleasure of never needing a bookmark again.
Of these apps, Moon+ Reader won me over thanks to its sophisticated display options, range of gesture controls and informative status bar. But if your e-reading sensibilities differ from mine, it costs you only a little time to try several apps and find the one that best suits you and your particular needs.
Lee Schlesinger formerly served as Executive Editor of ZDNet's Business & Technology pages and Test Center Director at Network World. You can follow him on Twitter: @leeschlesinger.
This article, 4 Android e-reader apps: The latest word in reading, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.