eTextbooks; not quite there yet...

I recently purchased an outstanding book called the 3ds Max 2011 Bible, and the publisher very generously included a full-color .pdf version of the text. I was floored by having a digital version of the book, especially in color (since the textbook is actually black and white only). It also meant that I did not always have to lug around an 1,100 page book.

So I loaded up the HUGE 87 megabyte .pdf on Dropbox, so I could access it from all my computers and mobile device, and loaded it up on my favorite devices. After a week of using my first eTextbook I started to realize that when it comes to real world usability; there is still a long ways to go.

I loaded the 3ds Max Bible onto my iPad first, thinking this would be the perfect device to get full use out of this eTextbook. However, when downloaded through the Dropbox app, and then loaded into iBooks (my current .pdf reader of choice for the iPad), I immediately noticed some large issues. The biggest being the actual page numbers for the textbook are nearly 50 pages off from what iBooks says the page number is. Unacceptable.

iBooks also had a lot of trouble showing thumbnails of the pages, stuttering a lot when trying to render everything. Searching was not terrible, but only the first dozen or so results were shown at a time. And more results were only shown as you scrolled down a pop-up menu. When tapping on a result the page the query was found on did load rather quickly, but there is also no way of knowing exactly how many pages a query is on, or how many times it appears in the .pdf.

Just for kicks I tried to load the .pdf on my Motorola Droid, running Froyo (2.2.1). I downloaded the file over Wi-Fi through the Dropbox app. The file then opened in QuickOffice. I was surprised how quickly the file opened to the first page, but then recalled that QuickOffice only renders one page at a time. This was incredibly evident when I tried to scroll down to load the next page, which took more than 30 seconds to render; even though the page was blank. I then tried to jump to page 187 to see if the page numbers lined up, but QuickOffice crashed. Oh well.

Next up, Adobe Reader for Windows. This was a drastically smoother experience than my two mobile devices offered. However, with how large the .pdf was, it felt a little unwieldy. But on the plus side I was able to jump to physical page numbers, even though the actual .pdf page number was still off by almost 50 pages.

The biggest annoyance was how little Adobe Reader actually rendered in terms of pages: in order to get the text large enough to read you had to zoom in enough that you could not see an entire page, which is understandable, however scrolling through pages was not smooth at all. Any part of a page that is off screen isn’t rendered, so when you start to scroll, the text pops on screen and kind of go blurry for a moment. Images are even worse. And don’t get me started on viewing page thumbnails, less than 10 are shown at a time in the default zoom. And as soon as you start scrolling, any new thumbnails are blank for a moment while Reader catches up.

The search feature in Adobe Reader is also a grand annoyance, as it is very rudimentary in comparison to the other .pdf readers I tried. Adobe Reader doesn’t show you how many times, or on how many pages a query shows up; it just jumps to a page the query is on and highlights it. That’s it.

Lastly, I tried opening this monster .pdf using Preview in Mac OS X 10.6. This is by far the best of the lot. Smooth scrolling, thumbnails of over 30 pages before you run into blank, yet-to-be-rendered ones. And the ability to jump to real page numbers. A big plus is also pinch to zoom support on multi-touch trackpads (but I won’t hold that over the others too much as it’s mostly a Mac-only thing).

Lastly, searching in Preview is also leagues above everything else. Once you enter your search query, Preview only shows thumbnails of pages that contain that query. And whenever you select one of those pages not only is all of the instances of your search highlighted on the page, Preview draws attention to the first instance on the page by ‘blinking’ the highlighted word at you.

Now, let me close this all with a sort of disclaimer: I know there are other, probably far better, .pdf reader programs out there; but I chose to use the default readers on each kind of device I had access, and that would also possibly be available to your run-of-the-mill college student.

If eTextbooks are truly to catch on as a true alternative to their analog, paper forebears then readability is as much of an importance, if not more so, then portability. Also, I didn’t even touch on annotating eTextbooks with notes, as many students will do with textbooks. This will also need to be a major tenet of eTextbooks if they are to truly catch on. I will say though, that even having a full-color .pdf version of an 1,100 page textbook is a huge leap in the right direction for publishers of college textbooks; but on the software side of things we’re not quite there… yet.