March 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 3

Book Reader App Usability

Bookshare Reader 3.7.0 and Darwin Reader 1.22: Two Android Apps Provide Access to Books

When it comes to reading specialized book formats supported by stand-alone digital book players like the Victor Reader Stream or the BookSense, much attention has been paid to accessibility solutions on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Meanwhile, the available apps for accessibly reading books on the Android platform have increased substantially over the past few months. Users of Android smartphones now have options for accessing this specialized content, often at a lower cost than apps offered on iOS.

Bookshare Reader 3.7.0

The free Bookshare Reader app exemplifies the adage "you get what you pay for." This eBook reading app for Android builds accessibility features on top of the mainstream book reading program called FBReader. While this approach provides an integrated book reading solution for a variety of formats, it also has its limitations.

All of the app's functions are accessed from the phone's menu key, so at launch, you are presented with a blank main screen. Buried in the menu is an item called "Network Library," where the option to download Bookshare titles resides. When you select this option, you are prompted for your Bookshare username and password and then presented with a screen where you can search by title, author, or ISBN, and browse the latest and most popular books. Searching for and downloading a book was straightforward, and several status messages were spoken during the process.

Once you open a book, you are returned to the main screen. To start reading, press Menu and select Speak. There is no way to set the app to start reading a book automatically. After selecting your preferred text-to-speech voice, the book will begin to play. While a book is playing, the only navigation options are Next and Previous Sentence buttons. Press one of these buttons and speech will stop; the Play button must be pressed again to resume reading. The menu includes both Table of Contents and Navigate to Page options. Selecting an item from the Table of Contents option did not move the cursor to the proper part of the book. The Navigate to Page option did allow us to learn the currently selected page number.

It's worth noting that this app is still in its infancy, and it's quite possible that many improvements will be made over time. A free, fully functional interface to Bookshare would be a welcome app for Android users.

Darwin Reader 1.22

Darwin Reader is a DAISY book reading app written by New Designs Unlimited, LLC. A free 30-day trial is available from the Android Market; the full version is available for $14.95.

The main screen of Darwin Reader displays a list of the available books in your library. Initially, the only available book is the on-board documentation, which gives a brief overview of the available commands.

To search for books, select the "Add Books to Library" option from the main screen. Bookshare is listed as one of the available sources. If this is your first time using the app, you will be prompted for your Bookshare username and password. Once logged in, several options are available including "Popular Books," "Latest Books," and "Search."

Bookshare maintains a partnership with NFB-Newsline, offering newspaper and periodical content from over 300 sources. In states where NFB-Newsline is funded, Bookshare members can use the Darwin Reader app to download today's newspaper or browse through recent editions. This affords a simple way to stay on top of the latest news without dealing with potentially cumbersome websites. You can easily add your favorite newspaper or periodical to a list of favorites for easier access.

Darwin Reader offers two reading modes: eyes-free mode, which is intended for readers who prefer a speech-centered output; and graphical mode, intended for readers who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Upon opening your first book, you will be prompted to choose the mode you prefer (you can switch between the two modes at any time by pressing the Menu key).

Navigating a book in the eyes-free mode is quite simple. The app uses swipe gestures, performed by moving your finger across the screen in specific ways. Swipe right to skip to the next sentence or left to jump to the previous sentence. Swiping up and down move to the previous and next section, respectively. Tap the screen once to start or stop speaking. The phone's arrow keys or D-pad can be used to navigate by word or character.

In the graphical mode, text is displayed on the screen and buttons across the bottom of the screen perform the sentence and section navigation commands. You can tap on any displayed word to have it spoken. Several settings are included for changing the appearance of the text, including the text color, line spacing, and font size.

The Navigation Mode gives access to the book's table of contents (if one is available), and allows for page navigation. The table of contents displays all of the headings and sections in the book, or the sections and articles in an NFB-Newsline publication. This same screen allows you to jump to a specific page within a shorter publication. For long books, however, it's not possible to enter a specific page number to jump to; instead, you must scroll through the list of pages until you reach the one you are looking for. There is no indication provided for your current location in the table of contents or your current page in the book. The only available information is an option that displays the percentage of the book that has been read. To enter Navigation Mode, tap and hold in eyes-free mode; select the Navigation icon in graphical mode; or select the Navigation option from the menu.

Two additional features add convenience while reading a book with the Darwin Reader app. The app includes the ability to set and recall bookmarks, which allows you to easily jump to a specific section of a book. There is no limit to the number of bookmarks that can be defined. In addition, a handy sleep timer is included, which allows you to have the book reading automatically stop after 10, 30, 60, 120, or 180 minutes. Darwin Reader remembers your place in each book the next time it is opened.

There is some room for improvement in the app. Some functions are not available on phones that don't have a dedicated keyboard or arrow keys, including spelling or speaking the currently selected word. Additional swipe gestures could be added to compensate for this. When the phone screen is locked, the slide gestures don't work. Other apps include a setting to keep the phone unlocked during reading; a similar option in Darwin Reader would be a welcome addition. Adding support for additional file formats would be a valuable feature as well.

The Bottom Line

With multiple screen readers and text-to-speech voices available, it's possible to customize your Android reading experience in ways not possible on other platforms. In addition, Android apps for reading Bookshare titles are less expensive than the iOS Read2Go app. With some minor improvements, a superior book reading experience on Android is possible. Developing a fully functional and flexible Android app for specialized book content may ultimately mitigate the need for a separate digital book player.

Product: Bookshare Reader
Author: Benetech
Price: free

Product: Darwin Reader
Author: New Designs Unlimited
Price: $14.95 (30-day free trial available)

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