Smartphone e-Reader App Reviews: Stanza by Lexcycle

by Joel Friedlander on May 23, 2011 · 19 comments

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As e-books become more popular, they are inevitably merging with the largest platform for e-book readers, the smartphone. Google’s Android operating system is now powering more phones than Apple’s iOs, but both continue to surge ahead in terms of market penetration and new users.

All told, the top 5 smartphone manufacturers sold 140 million phones in 2010. That’s a lot more than all the iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers and Kobo tablets put together.

It makes sense to think about whether your book are suitable for the smallest screen. Will the story still make sense on those little pages? Will the formatting of your nonfiction book survive the reader’s desire to see the type at the largest available size?

Time to find out.

I decided to take the top e-Book reader apps for smartphones out for a virtual test drive. Although I don’t claim to be encyclopedic in these reviews, I’m looking at them both from the point of view of someone who doesn’t mind reading on the phone, as well as a publisher looking to find readers where they want to be reading. If that’s for a few minutes while standing waiting for the bus, so be it. That’s up to the reader.

StanzaI decided to start with Stanza, a free e-reader originally developed by Lexcycle, a company that was later acquired by Amazon. It’s unclear at this point whether Amazon intends to keep the program alive or not, since the website seems to have gone dormant some months ago.

However, Stanza, which was the most popular e-Reader at one time, and one of the top free apps in Apple’s app store, is such an unusual e-book reader, it’s well worth a look.

For Readers, You Need Books

One of the things that distinguishes Stanza is the sources for its e-books. Unlike Kindle, iBooks, Google and Nook, the app is not linked to one store for its purchases. Instead, Stanza has access to a lot of diverse libraries of e-books. This is both a strength and a weakness, since you may not find the same coverage or quantity in the different collections as you might with the Kindle app, for example.

But Stanza has other tricks up its sleeve. Let’s look at the main components. Compared to most e-book readers, Stanza has a vast control system that allows you to customize your reading experience in ways no other e-reader can match.

Here are the main elements of the app, with some notes.

  • Reading screen—Stanza gives you unparalleled control over the display, far surpassing what other e-book readers allow. Here the reading screen is shown in Georgia with a beige background, and with the type fully justified and hyphenated, something that’s simply impossible on other e-readers.

    Stanza reading screen

    Click to enlarge



  • Control screen—This is the screen you get when you tap once, and it gives you access to a huge variety of tools to control the app. From here you can navigate using the buttons along the bottom of the screen, to:

    Stanza control screen

    Click to enlarge

    • Table of Contents, bookmarks and annotations
    • Settings screens with controls for general items, layout, appearance, and app control.
    • Layout tools like Justify, Left, right or center,
    • Hyphenation with dictionaries in many languages
    • Margins, Line spacing, Paragraph spacing and Paragraph indent. These controls use adjustment sliders.
    • Appearance tools like switching to the Night Theme
    • Choice of 42 fonts, and font size selection with sliders
    • Background and text colors
    • Background image and opacity
    • Even more software controls like lock rotation, use page turn effects and more.
    Stanza settings

    Click to enlarge

    Note that in the settings screen there’s a sample at the top showing you instantly the effect of the changes you’re making.

  • Library screen—Here is where you store your books, and you can sort on Books, Authors, or Groups.
  • Stanza library screen

    Click to enlarge

  • Bookstore screen—You can see right away the difference between Stanza and the proprietary apps that only allow you to shop in one store. The app includes access to these retailers:

    • Books on Board eBook Shop
    • O’Reilly Ebooks
    • All Romance eBooks
    • SmashWords
    • Fictionwise

    And these free and sample e-book sources:

    • Feedbooks
    • Project Gutenberg
    • Random House Free Library
    • Try Harlequin
    • Books from Munseys
    • Books from BookGlutton
    • Pan Macmillan Tasters
    Stanza bookstores

    Click to enlarge

    You’ll notice even more control icons at the bottom of the screen, including an invert button to switch between black on white or white on black, a search tool and access to yet another screen of controls, this one called Actions, which includes

    • the command to delete a book
    • a dictionary
    • access to your downloads
    • another set of font size controls
    • and a sharing menu for Facebook, Twitter or via email

Just for fun, I changed a lot of the display parameters and loaded a more heavily formatted nonfiction book. Here it is with a white background, no hyphenation or justification, and typeset in American Typewriter:

Stanza

Click to enlarge

Overall, Stanza is easy to use and gives you terrific control of the reading experience in far more detail than any other e-reader. Although the choice of new trade books may not be as wide as other, proprietary apps, the ability of Stanza to also handle PDFs and other formats is even more reason to add this app to your smartphone.

Next up: Apple’s iBooks app.

Stanza in the iTunes App Store
Also available as an app for Macintosh, for iPad and for Windows.

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    { 15 comments… read them below or add one }

    tmso December 26, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Ha! Funny, but true. As an American, I didn’t notice Stanza’s dictionary deficiency. Maybe you can submit a request to the App makers?

    Update: I find myself using the Kindle app more and more for one reason – I can lock the screen orientation.

    Oh, and yes, when I read for pleasure, I do like to get off my computer. :)

    Reply

    Alain December 25, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Stanza is ok but it sucks great heights for one HUGE feature it lacks: there is no way to add other dictionaries than the almighty American English one.

    When will Americans wake up and realize that even though they keep bombing the hell out of the other countries they deal with, invading their cultures with crappy Hollywood blockbusters, uniting with criminals in Israel every chance they get when a resolution is passed at the U.N., and so many other highly annoying facts, well, there are actually people in these countries who still use their apps and who don’t freakin’ only read in English, for crippled children’s sake!!!! (crippled with American-made anti-personel mines, that is). Love to mix politics with ANY topic, as much as I can heheheeh.

    Reply

    Laura (Tampa BookWorm) August 5, 2011 at 8:28 am

    I continued looking at sites and found from http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=78767 to turn of “Styles” in the Preferences and it falls back to the colors defined in stanza’s preferences.

    This worked for me!!

    Reply

    Everett Powers May 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I like the Stanza app for all the reasons you mentioned. However, I like to read in night mode and it won’t display the text in white letters again the dark background. It doesn’t on the iPhone or iPad apps. Which is a shame. I prefer to buy my ebooks at Smashwords as it allows me to choose which version I’d like to use. (I don’t have a Kindle or Nook, etc.)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 25, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Everett, thanks for your comment. If you look at the control screen you’ll notice a little round “yin/yang” symbol in the bottom center. If you tap that, it will invert the display for night reading. Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Laura (Tampa BookWorm) August 5, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I have tried the “yin/yang” symbol to switch to night mode, but it does not show the words in white – all you see is the black screen. I even deleted the app and re-downloaded it to my iPhone and it still does not work. :-(

    Reply

    David Kudler May 24, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Joel–I really enjoyed hearing you speak yesterday evening at the BAEF forum.

    I love Stanza too, but as I mentioned last night, it has this odd tendency to drop images. The text reflows, but there’s no there there. Most disappointing.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    David, that was odd to see the little box with no picture in it. It’s too bad about Stanza, because a lot of intelligence obviously went into designing it to be reader-friendly.

    Reply

    Sharon January 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    I have noticed that Stanza (on my Mac) picks up the first image in a file, and nothing else. I guess it thinks the first image is the cover or something. Generally, I am very disappointed with Stanza, but nobody else seems to be, so maybe it’s just the Mac version. I have tried it on both OS 10.4 and 10.6. There’s no margin control, it deletes every style, and not just the complex CSS like margins, it’s including bold and italic. I downloaded the book of which you have a screen shot above, and no bolds and no “space before” paragraphs appear. It’s worse than a typewriter. If my view of it looked like your screen shot, I would love it. I am looking for something to read books on the computer. I don’t need it for my phone, I have a Nook and a Kindle Fire. Oh well!

    Reply

    bowerbird May 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    joel said:
    > compared to all the other e-reader apps, Stanza is
    > the only one that treats the reader like an adult.

    right. it lets _you_ control all of the relevant variables,
    like fontsize, leading, margins, background, colors, etc.
    that’s what i meant when i said it does what it _should_.
    none of the other apps even come close in that regard.

    ***

    tmso said:
    > I don’t have a problem with the programs
    > not working on my desktop. As a matter of fact,
    > I don’t want them on there. I work on my computer,
    > I don’t want to read on my computer.

    you act like “working” and “reading” are exclusive activities.

    ***

    > As for the ePub format, from what I can read
    > on digital books/eReaders (Bookeen, Edge, Hanvon,
    > Kindle, Nook, etc.) blogs since it is used by iBooks
    > the “anything but Apple” crowd can’t find any quality to it.

    i’m a big apple person. but i think the .epub format stinks.

    and i was amazed that apple decided to stoop to using .epub.

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Christina Carabini May 24, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Stanza iPhone has been one of the most popular book readers for the iPhone listed as Apples favorite free in their App Store Turns 1 list of favorite apps ..Stanza Desktop features a variety of text layout views such as multicolumn vertical scrolling and horizontal scrolling. Significantly Stanza also supports exporting to a wide array of formats for use on mobile devices using 3rd party readers such as or the …… This has prompted many users to switch to alternative readers fearing that the abandonment could be permanent…

    Reply

    Gilles May 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I used to be enthusiastic about reading on my iPhone (and iPod touch)… until I bought an iPad, that is.

    As for the ePub format, from what I can read on digital books/eReaders (Bookeen, Edge, Hanvon, Kindle, Nook, etc.) blogs since it is used by iBooks the “anything but Apple” crowd can’t find any quality to it.

    Reply

    tmso May 23, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    I use Stanza, too, but not exclusively. I also use ereader and the Kindle app for the iPhone. All programs are on my iPhone. I don’t have a proper e-Reader like a Nook or Kindle.

    In regards to which one I like best…I’m not sure. I think they are all pretty good. The table of contents, though, I think, is a function of how the e-pubber sets up the e-book.

    I don’t have a problem with the programs not working on my desktop. As a matter of fact, I don’t want them on there. I work on my computer, I don’t want to read on my computer. I use my iPhone for that because it’s always with me.

    One thing I find annoying with the Kindle app is that when you start a new book, it immediately jumps you to the “first” page of text. I want to see the cover, read what used to be on the inside flap, the pub info, etc. So I have to scroll back several pages to the very first digital page, which for a lot of books is the cover art.

    Reply

    bowerbird May 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    stanza does most things a reader-app should.
    stanza was a very good example. in its day.

    but that day didn’t last long, and is now gone.

    it’s good as a benchmark, mostly to humble
    the shoddy current crop of (non-)contenders,
    none of which do “most things” they should.

    but when you judge smartphone reader-apps,
    you cannot just forget the desktop entirely…

    if a program won’t run on desktop machines,
    and lexcycle gave up that ghost as soon as it
    was purchased by amazon, it’s all over, baby.

    so now we’re stuck in proprietary-land, where
    every bookstore has their own reader-app and
    their own bugs and “extended features”, and
    their own form of d.r.m., so the lock-in is huge.

    all the talk about .epub as “an open standard”
    is just rubbish denying the reality of the world.

    once you put d.r.m. on a file, it’s _not_ “open”,
    and the .epub supporters are so totally stupid
    that they fail to acknowledge that basic _fact_.

    so now we’re making a version of the “standard”
    e-book file-format for ibooks, and one for kobo,
    and one for the nook, and one for sony reader,
    and how in the world can this be a “standard”?

    stanza’s legacy is that it gave .epub a lifeline
    when we should have strangled it in its crib,
    rather than let the corporations corrupt it so.

    it’s ironic that lexcycle then sold out to amazon.

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    And yet, compared to all the other e-reader apps, Stanza is the only one that treats the reader like an adult. Too bad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they just let it wither. Thanks for filling in.

    Reply

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