Low vision and books (and a few other things) on the iPad Mini and the Nexus 7

Blog Date: 
Friday, November 30, 2012

By Clara Van Gerven

 

You know, I was going to write a blog post on low vision reading features on the Nexus 7 versus the iPad Mini. You’ll see that I have expanded a little on that brief. As it happened, I decided to test with the Humble Bundle books I’d acquired a little while ago. Humble Bundle lets you buy games and books (in my case, books) at a price you pick (really!) and with a distribution you pick. That is to say YOU get to decide how much of your money goes to the author, Humble Bundle, and a short list of charities they support. How cool is that, right? And did I mention all of their eBooks are DRM-free, and available in multiple formats, so you can pick your device? So it’s as easy and flexible as you could hope for.

Well…mostly.

On the iPad Mini I went to my download page, hit the button for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in EPUB, my accessible and fully reflowable format of choice, and voilà, it opened in iBooks. Go read!

On the Nexus 7, I tried that with Google Play Books. Hah. No dice. So then I went back to the actual instructions and read the ones for Android. Yes, yes, I’m not much of a manual reader if I can wing it. Clearly I couldn’t. So here’s the instructions:

 

Android Instructions:

  • To view your eBooks on an Android device, first download the eBooks to your computer. Next, transfer the files from your computer to your Android device over USB.
  • Choose and install an eBook reader from the Android Marketplace. A popular option for Android devices is to download the Kindle App and follow the Kindle steps from the above section Send the eBooks to my Kindle or Kindle reader!
  • Alternatives to the Kindle app include Aldiko and Kobo which support the .epub and .pdf formats. To use these, just transfer the files to your Android device via USB or Wi-Fi.
  • Finally, open the files in the eBook reader.

 

I was discouraged by the length of the instructions. Here, for comparison, are the iOS ones.

iOS Instructions:

  • Install the iBooks app
  • Install the iBooks app from here, or by searching for it within the iTunes App Store.
  • Visit your download page in Mobile Safari
  • Navigate to your download page on your iOS device by typing in the URL or following the link you received by email when you purchased the bundle.
  • Tap the download link and choose “Open in iBooks”
  • Choose a book and tap the EPUB or PDF download link. Then select “Open in iBooks” to add the book to your iBooks library.

 

Similar; but then I never did read the iOS instructions. My first question was “Wait, what? Kindle is your first suggestion? Why not Play Books?” Ok, so that’s three questions, but you get the idea. I decided to be contrary and boycott Kindle (on account of no accessibility for blind users) and try Play Books anyway. This prompted my next question.
“I need to connect to a computer? Are you sure?”
Yes, they are sure. I tried getting around that and failed. Then I was a good girl and connected the Nexus 7 and imported the book. There is no books folder. Podcasts, yes, books, not so much.  I tried a couple of plausible locations, to no avail.  I Googled for help, and came up emptyhanded. I found out that Play Books does handle EPUB, and that you can export the books elsewhere. That’s great. Nothing on importing books. I have since verified with Our Man at Google, and importing EPUB files into Play Books is not possible. For an open source platform, that is very saddening.

So then, eventually, I tried copying it to the Blio folder, and that worked. Still, I wanted to compare apples and apples, so gave up on importing EPUB for a minute and tried another book, the same one each device – Alice in Wonderland.

The basic low vision functionality is similar in both apps – you can adjust font size, brightness and color scheme (regular, sepia and night, which means white on black). You can also choose a font. In addition, on both devices double tap will open an illustration and let you zoom in on it individually. Oddly enough, in the night view, the illustrations disappear in iBooks; in Play Books, the images are simply shown in regular color. On the Nexus 7, you can also pick text alignment and line spacing in the settings.  

Where it gets interesting is the peripheral items – how easy is it to get to these controls? How easy is it to get into a book? On the face of it, the magnification gestures on both devices are similar – you can magnify while in a book, and pan through the page and controls if you reveal them. This is quite handy. The magnification on the Mini is a lot crisper and clearer all around; the Nexus by comparison looks quite paltry. That said, the gestures on the Nexus are, I think, really nicely intuitive, more so than on the Mini (for me). Here’s a very quick comparison:

Nexus:

  • Start magnification: Triple tap, one finger   
  • Change magnification: Pinch/reverse pinch    
  • Pan: Drag two fingers             

 

iPad Mini:

  • Start magnification: Triple tap, three fingers
  • Change magnification: Triple tap three fingers, then drag up or down
  • Pan: Drag with three fingers

There are some more quirks once you stray away from books even a little. For one thing the magnification is, for lack of a better term, more persistent on the Mini. The Nexus switches you back to regular view every time you change apps, which is a little irksome if you need the magnification consistently. Obviously, on triple tap, the magnification restarts. Another quirk is that that simple gesture, the single finger triple tap, comes at a price. Try it in Google Maps – it zooms all right, to a more detailed view, but doesn’t magnify. Maps on the other hand, does both zoom and magnification.

Large text, another useful feature, is quite different on each device – iOS gives you more size options, but only works in Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Messages and Notes. The large text in Android Jelly Bean gives you only one option for size, but does apply more broadly to things like, for example, the settings screen, which is quite nice. A strange little side effect is that the larger size font makes the bottom of the word Library disappear on the Home screen.

One other feature that currently has no Android counterpart is inverting colors, which can be done on iOS and which works well. There are rumors of improvements for the next release of Android, so we’re on alert for that.

All in all, I have to say that book reading on either device, purely from an in-book perspective, is pretty similar. It is the other, peripheral, and related tasks where the iPad Mini shines and perhaps –perhaps! – merits the price difference. Even without a Retina display, the magnification is just better. It is also more consistent around the device in general. In short, the Nexus 7 is a little like duct tape – cheap and mostly functional. The iPad Mini on the other hand is more like one of those fancy rabbit-shaped bottle openers – a little overpriced, well-designed, and doing its job very elegantly.