Alternatives to Stanza on iOS

Update: Forget all of this! Stanza delivered a surprise update to the Apple app store on November 10th, 2011, that restored functionality on iOS 5. But only update if you need to: this latest version breaks the app if you’re running an older iOS like 4.3 (thanks to Paula for pointing that out in the comments below.)


Lexcycle’s Stanza, the once mighty ebook reader app for iOS devices, doesn’t work on Apple’s latest mobile operating system iOS 5, and as development and maintenance on the app appears to have stopped, it likely never will.

Eulogy

Stanza was my first and most favorite ebook app for the iPhone, and later the iPad. When it was first launched, it had better features than any competing third party app, and over time it consistently beat the big players like Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble on things like openness and customization. I loved Stanza for subway rides—I used a giant font size in landscape view and was able to flick through screens like index cards, which made it easy to keep my place while being jostled and interrupted constantly.

For a while, Stanza was my catch-all app for ebook files, and it let me standardize my library around the EPUB format despite Amazon’s anti-user push for azw/mobi and tpz. Whether it was a title I’d downloaded from an author’s website, or a classic I’d grabbed off of Project Gutenberg, Stanza could handle it. I stopped caring that Amazon and Barnes & Noble were taking baby steps with their branded apps, because the scrappy alternative was far better. Worst case scenario, I could always remove the DRM on books from those retailers and shift them over to Stanza.

But best of all was how Stanza worked with my Calibre ebook library. I exported my entire Calibre library using OPDS and uploaded it to a private server, then connected to it from Stanza over the Internet. I was able to browse my library—and instantly download titles to my app—from anywhere I could get a wireless connection.

I always knew that Stanza would eventually go away after Amazon acquired it back in 2009. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised the retailer kept Stanza available for as long as it did, although I suspect Amazon’s motive was purely strategic: it prevented Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo from acquiring what was for a while the iOS platform’s most famous and popular ebook app, while at the same time it gave Amazon a way to indirectly offer an EPUB reader without having to sully the Kindle brand.

I suppose, if you want to live in denial, you can imagine there’s a slim chance Stanza will wake up from its comatose state one day and start working again. But it’s time to move on. From the day Amazon purchased Stanza, we knew in our hearts that it wouldn’t last forever.

We, the survivors

If you’re a Stanza user on an iOS device, what’s next for you? Here are some quick tips:


Getting your files back from a broken Stanza

The simplest strategy is to not upgrade to iOS 5 if you can help it, although by doing so you’ll miss out on some really nice features that Apple has introduced, like system-wide text expander shortcuts, an elegant (but extremely limited) to-do app, and the ability to update and sync your device over Wi-Fi.

If you updated your device already, and you have ebook files in your Stanza app that you really want to salvage before moving on, you can try using the Stanza Book Restore tool that Lexcycle created. It’s a Java app that will scan your most recent iTunes backup, find the Stanza files that were saved there, and extract them as files with human-readable names.


Finding a decent alternative

Based on the suggestions in this Get Satisfaction thread on Stanza’s iOS 5 issues and this Mobileread wiki page on ebook software, I tried a few other apps to see if I could find one that would work with my private OPDS library and provide some decent functionality. Here are my observations.

Best premium bet: MegaReader ($1.99 at time of post)

    Pros:
  • handles OPDS catalogs nicely
  • good basic customization options
  • some great built in catalogs, so if you just want to find a good book to read fast (from a public domain collection, naturally), you can do that within seconds of launching this app
    Cons:
  • doesn’t handle some basic font styles like bold or italic
  • no way to take notes or look up words
  • limited layout options (what is has are nice, but there aren’t many)

Based on the suggestions users are making on the app’s user forums, there are some other missing features that could limit its usefulness to some users: there’s no way to drag and drop files into it using iTunes, and it can’t handle really large (1000+ titles) libraries.

I’ve been using it for a few days, and I’ve found that for basic reading and public domain book discovery, I’m pretty happy with it. However, if I’m doing a closer reading of a book—which often includes taking notes, highlighting passages, making lots of bookmarks, and looking up unfamiliar words—I much prefer to use iBooks or the Kindle app.


Best free bet: iBooks

    Pros:
  • free
  • simple but elegant UI
  • handles PDF files as well
    Cons:
  • not many customization features
  • no access to catalogs–only the terrible iBooks Store, which you should avoid at all cost unless you like having your ebooks locked to iOS devices and nothing else (not Mac desktops)
  • I’ve had trouble with the app running sluggishly if I add a lot of notes and highlights to a text.

To get EPUB files from other online catalogs into iBooks, you’ll have to access them from Mobile Safari, then choose iBooks when you download the file. Alternately, you can drag-and-drop non-DRMed files into the Books section of iTunes and sync that way. Fine, it’s not a great solution, but it’s free.


Not recommended (except perhaps for public library checkouts):

Bluefire is more or less useless to me. Its choice of catalogs is paltry and locked down, meaning you can’t add your own, and its key functionality—the ability to read titles locked to your Adobe Digital Editions account—is duplicated in other apps. You can annotate your books, but you can’t export any notes, which makes the feature rather pointless.

Overdrive is only good for accessing library ebooks and audiobooks, and it doesn’t offer basics like layout options, the ability to annotate, or a dictionary. If you use the Kindle app, and your library has the title in the Kindle format, you’ll find it’s a much better option—Amazon will back up your notes so you can access them later, and you can take advantage of the Kindle platform’s bookmark syncing.

(Image credits: casket, wickenden; frame, John Loo)

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