Some months ago we reviewed Marvin, an ebook reading app for the iPad. We hailed it as the best reading experience available, and more than six months on that view hasn’t changed. The developer has been beavering away, listening to feedback and putting out regular updates. With every new version come not just additional useful features like collections, but a performance boost too, making Marvin something of a speed demon.
Our biggest criticism of Marvin was the lack of an iPhone version. For many, some of us here included, this was a deal breaker. Once you’ve tried the seamless synchronisation available in the Kindle and iBooks apps, it’s difficult to go back to manually flipping through your book to find where you had got to on your other device.
Happily this shortcoming is no more, because Marvin for iPhone is here. And it is wonderful.
The developer could have taken the easy way out when porting the app to the iPhone. He could have reused the same components, shrunk them down to fit on the smaller screen, and pushed it out to the app store ASAP. But Marvin for iPhone is a completely new app written from the ground up for the pocketable device, and it shows. The level of care and attention to detail is evident throughout. It feels like the Marvin we know and love, but it works in the way we’ve all come to expect an iPhone app to work. It reminded me of Flipboard’s transition to the iPad’s smaller sibling; the spirit of the tablet app remains intact, yet all the time remaining faithful to the conventions of the iPhone.
The main library view is almost identical to the iPad version, with cover thumbnails, titles, and authors all visible. Only the category information and the date the book was added are missing, and the latter can be found within the metadata. A subtle animation reminds you that you can swipe any book to the left to access a contextual menu from where you will find that metadata, as well as options to share the book via email (or just highlights, notes, or annotations), mark it as read or unread, add it to a reading list, organise it into collections, or remove it altogether.
Collections can be made automatically, or you can create your own. Unfortunately these are not synchronised with the iPad version. However, there is a third party Calibre plugin called Marvin XD which allows you to do this via the popular open source library manager. The plugin does many other clever things too, including generating Marvin deep view data, word counts, and more.
While we’re on the subject of synchronisation, Marvin now keeps your last read position up to date between all your iOS devices. The first time a book is opened it is necessary to tap a little cloud icon to start the synching. Unlike iBooks and Kindle, it’s not enabled by default (a security measure apparently). Your position in the book is then updated every time you return to the home screen of Marvin, when your device goes to sleep or sends Marvin to the background (i.e. you open another app), or when you manually tap the cloud button. In practice we found it a little less reliable than the Kindle’s synching, and about the same as iBooks. Sometimes it needed prodding by tapping the button, and sometimes it just didn’t work at all. When it did work (which was most of the time, to be fair), the position was occasionally a little off, in no doubt due to the different page sizes between the iPad and iPhone, something that the Kindle app also suffers from.
If you forget to enable synching on a new book on one device and subsequently open it on another, you’ve got to find your place the old fashioned way. We understand why the default option is not to synch in this age of spying scandals and heightened privacy concerns, but we’d really like a way to enable it automatically for every book. We’re simply not that worried about the NSA knowing which chapter we’re on in the latest Jack Reacher novel!
Synching only works for your location in the book, but we understand that notes and highlights are coming soon. One final note on this feature; interestingly, the developer has chosen to use Dropbox as the data store, not iCloud. This means an extra step is required as you’ll need to link the app to a Dropbox account (every iOS device is already connected to iCloud). It does however, hint at the tantalising possibility of non-Apple device versions of Marvin in the future.
Of course, most of the time spent in Marvin will be spent actually reading text, and as with the iPad version, this is where the app really shines. The iPhone edition is as generous with formatting options as its older sibling, allowing you to change margins, line spacing, indentation, paragraph spacing, hyphenation and justification, and paragraph and heading fonts. These options override the settings found in the ePub you are reading, but you can choose to ignore your choices and go with whatever the publisher intended if you prefer.
An extensive selection of system and custom fonts are available, including our favourite — Lora — which looks incredible on the retina display, and the very clear Arvo which is a good choice for night reading and tired eyes. Speaking of which, you can configure three themes defining text and background colours from a huge selection, just as with the iPad version. Set up one for indoor reading (black on light grey, to look like an eInk device for example), one for night reading (perhaps light grey on black), and one for outdoor reading (black on white) and your reading experience will be comfortable in all lighting conditions. Enabling the fast theme switching option then lets you switch between these colour schemes with a single tap on the top of the page.
Tap anywhere else, and upper and lower menu bars glide into view giving access to bookmarks, the table of contents, deep view, search, formatting options, brightness settings (including the handy warmth setting), and the all important cloud synch button. The brightness and warmth can also be changed with swipe gestures on the page, cutting out a few extra taps.
So Much More
Marvin has always offered more than just reading with its deep view feature. This is present on the phone, and works as well as on the iPad. Deep view ’reads’ your books for you and provides summaries of character and location information, as well as looking up further data from Wikipedia. You can pin your own articles too, making Marvin a great tool for students.
Those using Marvin as a study aid will also appreciate the comprehensive highlighting, annotation, and note taking features. All your notes and highlights can be exported separately, as can lists of words that you’ve looked up in the dictionary. I say dictionary (singular), but in fact there is more than one. The Manage Dictionary screen (which, strangely, does not use the newer iOS7 theme but instead looks like a throwback to iOS6) lets you download multiple dictionaries in a number of languages.
Marvin on the iPhone is every bit as much of a joy to use as the iPad version. Thoughtful use of intuitive gestures mean that important and frequently used functions are only ever a tap or a swipe away, yet without messy buttons cluttering up the page. If you don’t want to remember gestures, all the options are easy enough to find by tapping and navigating through classic buttons. The extensive formatting options make it a breeze to get your books looking exactly how you want.
We can’t review Marvin without comparing it to the Kindle app, which has been recently updated. Like Marvin, Amazon’s reader has a fresh new iOS7-inspired look, and it’s certainly improved in terms of options available. Even so, Marvin blows it out of the water for configurability and usability. I constantly find myself swiping at the Kindle screen trying to make a slight adjustment to brightness, or tapping to change the theme, only to be reminded that those oh-so-useful gestures don’t exist in the Amazon app. iBooks is even worse, looking like something from the dark ages with its skeuomorphic book case library and minimal formatting options. Its only saving grace is its ability to read PDFs, something Marvin’s developer is adamant he won’t be adding any time soon, if at all.
And that’s fair enough, because Marvin is unashamedly an ePub reader, and in our view, the best there is for iOS. The iPad app remains free, and the iPhone version is a steal at $4.99 (€4.49, £2.99). Both are in the app store now. If you care about reading, you should buy this app.
Review By Hamish Dowell