The waves of publicity generated first by Amazon’s Kindle and follow-up devices such as the Nook and Galapagos, and now by tablet devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the upcoming BlackBerry Playbook, have made e-book readers among the most discussed (and debated) tech items of the last couple of years. Although e-books are undoubtedly going mainstream, there’s still a debate that centres on whether the portability, storage capacity and sheer convenience of e-book readers makes them a viable alternative to real books.

If you’re undecided on whether to buy a dedicated e-book device, we suggest you use your smartphone to dip your toes into the digital reading experience. There are a number of free apps that will convert your smartphone into an e-book reader, and with the increased clarity and bigger displays on smartphones, you’ll be surprised at the quality of the reading experience. We were.

E-books come in different formats, such as epub, LIT and PDF, and most apps will allow you to read books only in certain formats. When picking an e-Reader app, look out for its compatibility with the common e-book formats to ensure you have access to a large library of digital content.

Platform: Android

Tested on: HTC Desire

Aldiko gets its name from the Swahili word for book, ‘andiko’, and if you’re part of the growing legion of Android users, then this is currently the best e-book app for you. Downloadable directly from the Android Market, this nifty little app reads books in the epub format, the free and open e-book standard championed by the International Digital Publishing Forum, and lets you import books directly from your phone’s memory card slot. The reader also gives you access to the Feedbooks store, which has a library of thousands of free e-books.

The main menu is basically a bookshelf that displays the covers of your recently read books on the top shelf, your library in the middle, and an option to download books in the third. Once you open an e-book, you have the option of rotating your device to read in either portrait or landscape (this feature can be switched off, so you’re no longer a slave to your phone’s accelerometer). You can customize the size and colour of nine different fonts, and there’s a particularly useful night mode to provide optimum conditions for reading in low light. You can also access a dictionary (or Google) if you want to look up a word.

Aldiko is simple and hassle free, and looks good to boot. It’s a winner

Also See | Screens that work



Platform: iOS

Tested on: iPhone 3GS

If you’re an iPhone or iPod touch owner, this e-Reader app is an excellent alternative to the standard iBooks.

The first thing you notice about Stanza is how clutter-free and easy it is to use. It may look a bit bare bones, but don’t be deceived—Stanza is packed with most of the features you’d need in an e-Reader app. Visually, we liked the styling, especially the cover flow feature mode, similar to the one seen in iTunes (here you flip through book covers instead of albums).

Like with most competent e-Readers, you can play around at will with the font, size and colour of the text you’re reading. Stanza plays on the iPhone screen’s multi-touch capability and lets you zip around the text, pinching to zoom in and out. You’ve also got the option of bookmarking pages within a book and Stanza also includes a feature that automatically takes you back to the last page you were reading when you restart the app.

Stanza works with non-digital rights managment (DRM) content and handles a number of formats, including epub, PDF, etc. To stock up your library, you’re can download from free book download sources, such as the Project Gutenberg Library and Feedbooks.



Platforms: Android, iOS and BlackBerry OS

Tested on:HTC Desire, BlackBerry Curve

This e-Reader app is made in collaboration with the American book store Borders (another fruit of that collaboration is the mildly successful Kobo e-Reader device). Kobo’s motto is to allow users to “read anything, anywhere" and importantly, on “any device of their choice". The app is already available on multiple smartphone platforms as well as the iPad (it also has a highly avoidable PC avatar). Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) new tablet, PlayBook, will feature it as a pre-loaded app.

We got a chance to test it on both BlackBerry and Android, although the experience is vastly superior on the HTC Desire’s larger, higher resolution screen. The lack of landscape mode, however, is a glaring miss, given some of the 4 inch-plus smartphone devices currently in the market.

Kobo’s global book store gives you access to around 2.2 million books, and handily organizes them into best-seller and recommended-reading lists. A couple of hundred free books are available in the store as well.

As a reader app, the present Kobo is a massive improvement on the Shortcovers app it replaces, but it still falls short of being a standout program, partially due to the lack of customizable options and the fact that you’re locked in to the Kobo store for purchases.

Kobo’s greatest strength is its multiplatform availability, but to make the most of that, its developers need to urgently improve its cross-device syncing.



Platform: Android

Tested on: HTC Desire

Similar in its design to Aldiko (and by extension, Apple’s iBooks), Laputa claims to offer the most “realistic" reading experience out of any of the apps (if by realistic you mean access to the most illegal content). It’s easiest to directly access free, non-legal content through the app (mostly through the supported Blaze book store), and the Android app scores in this regard. Otherwise, its tacky page-flip animation doesn’t quite qualify as the “real" reading experience.

But you can turn off the page-flips, and that aside, this is quite a handy little app to have around: Like the Aldiko, you can upload your DRM-free epub content, and download from free online book sources such as ManyBooks, Feedbooks and the Project Gutenberg Library. The wooden bookshelf that serves as the main page isn’t the most appealing, but it’s functional: You can easily sort and rearrange your books by criteria such as the latest read or author’s name.

We’re still undecided about the utility of a day/night reading mode (especially when compared with the option of manually changing the background colour option), but Laputa, again like Aldiko, has one if you want it. It isn’t a star app, and we read about other users having stability issues, with the reader crashing often. Still if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to buy too many e-books (yet still access them) this is the app for you.

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