Stand aside iBooks. Out of the way please Kindle app. Kobo, nook, we hardly knew you. Stepping over the lifeless body of the much loved Stanza, here comes the new king of iPad reading applications. His name is Marvin, and he’s not only well armed, but impeccably dressed. And he’s clever too.
In the beginning there was Stanza. And it was good. A flexible reading app that could handle many file formats. Text formatting options were abundant. Book discovery was simple with built in catalogues. Then came Amazon brandishing a new weapon, the Kindle reader and its little brother, the Kindle ‘app’. Although not as pretty or as configurable as Stanza, Kindle quickly won ground thanks to the fact it came from the world’s largest supplier of ebooks. With time, Kindle app grew smarter with features like x-ray, and prettier too. But Kindle did something else, it killed Stanza. It’s master, Amazon, bought the app, and then let it die ungracefully.
Yet the battle was not done. Apple’s iBooks joined the fight. Flashy page turning animations and a skeuomorphic bookcase made it the best looking of the lot. For many serious readers though, iBooks was all fur coat and no knickers. Pretty bookcases don’t count for much when you can’t change the width of the margin on a page, or the colour of the text. Impressively realistic page turns quickly get old when what you really want is to dim the background a little. Or to adjust the line spacing. Or indeed to do anything other than read the book in precisely the format Apple decide you should read it in.
Other reading apps watched from the sidelines as Kindle and iBooks thrashed it out. Nook put in an appearance, but only in the USA. Kobo did better with an offering available everywhere, but they put more effort into “social” features because, you know, that’s what Facebook do and they’re successful, right?
And now there is Marvin, an iPad reading app to beat them all. Prettier than iBooks, in a clean and minimalistic way. Cleverer than Kindle, with x-ray beating artificial intelligence features. And best of all, a reading experience that is totally customisable, reminiscent of that once great warrior, the formerly magnificent Stanza.
The formatting options in Marvin are what really sets it apart from other apps out there. Sure the AI stuff is nice too, and we’ll look at that in a moment. Reading pages of text though, that’s what these kinds of apps are all about, so getting it right is critical. Mavin gets it right and then some.
To start with, you have almost total control over the page layout. Of course you can change the text size, and the font – all the built in iOS fonts are present, and there are a bunch of extras too, including the easy on they eye Lora, a couple of nice sans serif faces, and Open Dyslexic (opinions vary on whether fonts designed specifically for dyslexics actually work, but it’s good to have the choice). But the text size and font are but two attributes. Marvin also offers us the possibility to set our own margin widths. Prefer to read a newspaper column-like sliver of text? Marvin can oblige (to a point, the minimum width is a little over half the screen width). Rather make full use of your iPad’s real-estate? Marvin can do that too, leaving barley a pixel unused on either side.
The same goes for line spacing, and paragraph spacing. Want spaces between paragraphs and first line indents too? No problem! Fully justified or ragged right? Take your pick. Hyphenated or not? You choose. And the piece de resistance? Two column layout, in landscape and portrait, if you so choose.
These options go way beyond anything the mainstream readers offer. But it gets better. Marvin remembers your settings on a per-book basis. So if you prefer to read a non-fiction how-to manual using a clean sans-serif font with a wide layout and plenty of space between the lines, it won’t mess up your copy of The Da Vinci Code, neatly formatted in Times New Roman, two columns, fully justified.
Kindle and iBooks both have a night reading theme which switches the background to black, saving your eyes from the glare of the iPad’s well lit screen when reading in the dark. Marvin goes one better. In addition to the day and night modes is a third mode, and you decide how it looks. You can make your iPad look like an old-school eInk Kindle by setting the background to grey and the text to dark grey. Or you can go mad and have yellow text on a red background, if that’s what floats your boat. As if that wasn’t already brilliant, you can re-configure the day and night modes too, picking your own foreground and background colours, brightness and contrast. Switching between these three themes is easily done from the top menu, and even more easily done with a single tap using one of the built in gestures.
Switching themes is just one of a number of gestures Marvin knows about. It can also skip forward multiple pages by swiping with two or three fingers. Indeed you can also skip to the next chapter or bookmark if you prefer. Swiping vertically on the page will instantly adjust the brightness. Doing the same with two fingers will change the ‘warmth’ – a subtle but incredibly useful change that makes reading in different lighting conditions a real pleasure. In a related option, the extremities of the screen can be disabled to prevent accidental page turns – useful on an iPad mini. And of course, you can choose how to turn pages by swiping or tapping, and whether or not to animate the affair.
The reading screen is clean and uncluttered. The main menu options are presented as icons on the top in much the same way as iBooks. And as with the Apple app, a tap in the middle of the screen hides them in an instant. Aside from the formatting options there is a home button, access to the table of contents and bookmarks, Deep View (more on this later), a timer that can tell you when a certain period of time has elapsed, and which can also time your reading session, search (which currently works on a per-chapter basis, although the developer says whole book search is coming), brightness, contrast and warmth sliders, and a bookmark.
At the bottom of the screen Marvin tells us the number of pages remaining in the current chapter, and the name of the chapter. When the menu is hidden this text is grey and unobtrusive. With the menu enabled, a slider is also shown giving visual cues as to the progress through the book, and a means to rapidly flick through. Finally, the page header switches between the name of the book, the author, and the percentage read, it changes with each page turn.
The library forgoes the fur-coat prettiness of iBooks in favour of a more Kindle like list view. It’s clean and easy on the eye. There’s no grid view, but the list can be condensed to see more books at once.
Right now Marvin only supports DRM-free ePubs. Converting most formats to DRM-free is easy (if not always legal), but Marvin is expected to support other formats soon anyway.
To add books to the library, you have three options:
- Web browser: Navigate to your preferred book repository (a few bookmarks are included, like Project Gutenberg), and download ePubs directly into the app. You can of course, also use this method to import books from a Calibre server should you have one running.
- OPDS catalogue: Connect to servers running OPDS catalogues such as Gutenberg again, or Feedbooks, or your own Calibre server. This is a more elegant way to import the books from the popular library management software.
- Dropbox. Probably the easiest way for most people to get books into Marvin. Just drop your ePubs into your Dropbox and Marvin will find them and bring them in. Due to Dropbox’s own API limitations you cannot import more than a thousand books at once, but that’s not likely to affect most people, and there are easy enough work arounds for those it does (such as using multiple folders).
The library can be sorted by title, author, series, date added, and date last opened. Currently there is no way of organising collections (something also missing from the Kindle app), but this is promised for a later version.
Tapping a book opens it to the first page or the last opened position. Swiping right presents some extra options, including one to share the entire book, delete it, or examine the metadata (including a full word count).
The Library isn’t actually the home screen for Marvin. Instead a tastefully formatted welcome screen shows information about the last read book, as well as a shelf giving quick access to the last few books opened in the app.
Kindle has x-ray, Marvin has Deep View. Clicking the spectacles icon in a book will have Marvin ‘read’ it for you. Once read, the app can do some neat tricks. It can locate any character or place name in the book, very handy when you come across a character who hasn’t been seen for twenty chapters. Tap their name and instantly see where they were first introduced, as well as their other appearances throughout the text. The same goes for locations. The Auto Summary feature can literally summarise the book, or just certain characters within in. The summary is saved as a new work to the library. Finally the Articles option gives easy access to Wikipedia and other resources, looking up information about the book and its author. Articles it finds can be incorporated into the book for future reference. For students, Marvin makes it easy to keep study notes in one place.
Marvin is the most interesting and accomplished iOS ebook reader in a long time. Its text formatting features are second to none, putting it way ahead of anything else available. The Deep View AI engine is handy, probably more so to students. Highlighting and note taking, whilst not covered in this review, are all on a par or better than the offerings from Amazon and Apple. There are other hidden gems here too, such as the ability to save definitions of every word you look up, thus creating your own personal dictionary that you can later export.
Marvin is not perfect though, there are some shortcomings. The most obvious is the lack of an iPhone companion app. This is promised, complete with iCloud syncing, but there’s no date yet. An Android version may also appear one day, but it’s a lower priority. Another problem for some will be the fact Marvin opens only ePubs. Whilst this is probably not an issue for the target market, some casual users may be put off.
However, all these things can be and are being worked on. The pace of development is astounding, new releases have been coming thick and fast. The developer is also very open about the way ahead, publishing a roadmap on his website, as well as making himself easily accessible in forums, where he is open to suggestions for improvement.
All in all Marvin is a brilliant reading app, and one that any iPad owning book lover owes it to themselves to download and try. Right now it’s free, but it won’t stay that way forever. And nor should it, the developer deserves to be richly rewarded for such an outstanding effort.
Marvin is available for all iPads running iOS 5 or higher and is retina ready. You can download it from the App Store. Further information at marvinapp.com.