Reading Comics on the iPhone: an Initial Survey

So, I have an iPhone. And I want to read digital comics on it. Back with my iPod Touch, I tried unzipping a .cbz file, importing the images into iPhoto, and then syncing them to the Touch. The result was intriguing - scrolling, zooming, switching between pages, etc were fairly decent, but iTunes decided to “optimize” the jpegs before kicking them to the iPhone. This results in more-or-less unreadable lettering. There’ve been a couple jailbreak digital comic reader apps, but since I don’t want to jailbreak, they’re not really an option for me.

Converting to PDF seems like a potential solution. With a vanilla iPhone or Touch, you can’t just put files onto it as if it were an external drive - so while there’s a PDF viewer hidden away in the internals (used by Mail and Safari), there’s no way to get PDFs onto the iPhone. But with the advent of the App Store, there are a number of third party apps which well kinda-sorta turn your iPhone/Touch into a drive. Sorta. They also have “viewers” built-in for images, PDFs, text files, HTML, and (generally) Office docs. All the ones I’ve found so far are using the built-in PDF viewer, for example. From some poking around on the webpages of the various apps, I get the impression that some of them may use their own image viewer code, but I’m getting the impression that most of them again just use the built-in image viewer. Weirdly, they do tend to use their own HTML viewers, though. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling Safari isn’t accessible for third-party apps for some reason.

Take a look below the fold for my quick-and-dirty reviews of three of these apps, both for digital comic reading specifically and in general usage, as well as my thoughts on two more expensive apps of this type.

Anyway - I bought a few of these apps from the App Store and tried them out. Here are the apps I’ve downloaded and tried out:

They’re all 8 bucks or less - cheap enough that I was willing to buy three of ‘em even though at most I’ll end up using 1 long-term.

FileMagnet and Files are pretty comparable, in terms of featureset and performance - once you actually get your files to the iPhone. The gap between the two comes in the transfer phase. Files turns your iPhone (or iPod Touch, of course) into a WebDAV server - just browse to the URL it gives you as a folder (works in either XP or OS X), copy your files, folders, whatever, over, and you’re good to go. FileMagnet, on the other hand, requires you to get on your Mac (and just your Mac - no support for Windows at this point), go to the FileMagnet web page, and download a Mac app. To copy files to your iPhone, you run that app, drag files onto it, and then run FileMagnet on the iPhone. All told, a pain in the ass. Caravan, which has some issues on the iPhone, is somewhere between the two in inconvenience for me - you need to get an FTP server running on your PC or Mac, and then connect to it through Caravan on the iPhone. If you’ve got a Mac, that’s pretty simple to do, but is definitely more annoying on the PC - though Caravan does also allow you to save files from the web, which is a nice feature. So when it comes to file transfer, Files is pretty much your easiest option (and you can easily connect to your iPhone from any computer, so you can easily use your iPhone as a portable drive, which is handy as well).

As to viewing the comics…first of all, I should note that I’m using cYo’s awesome ComicRack, currently Windows-only, for both my normal digital comic reading and exporting from .cbz or .cbr to PDF. It’s great. I highly recommend it. But if you just export straight from a .cbr, the images in the resulting PDF are gigantic - the PDF’s file size can get high enough to crash any of the apps I’ve tried, and scrolling/zooming/etc are all painfully slow and awkward. So I’m currently jumping through a few hoops for my test cases - extracting the images from the .cbr, resizing them to 33% of their original size (gonna be trying 40% next time - 33% gets some choppiness in lettering), rezipping or reraring the images into a new .cbz/.cbr file, opening that new file in ComicRack, and finally exporting to PDF. The resulting PDF works fairly well - it’s still big enough that you can zoom in, scroll around, read everything, etc… And with Files and FileMagnet, if you tilt to landscape, you can get the full width of a page at a fairly readable zoom level.

Zooming is easy, of course - pinch/zoom works the same for PDFs as it does in Safari or Photos. Scrolling is pretty simple - just drag. There’s no sticky scrolling, so it’s easy to accidentally move a bit to the right when trying to scroll down, resulting in the side of the page moving off-screen, but that’s a limitation of the built-in PDF viewer. Page-to-page scrolling is meh at best - just drag down and you get to the next page, etc. No side-to-side pagination, just up-and-down. You can’t jump to a specific page without having already set a bookmark either. More importantly, page-to-page scrolling leads to lag as pages are loaded into the cache. It’s not crippling with the resized page images, but it’s not pleasant.

In general, Files and FileMagnet behave about the same in this area, which is unsurprising, since they’re both just using the PDF viewer. Caravan’s a bit different - it’s still using the built-in PDF viewer, but, unlike with Files and FileMagnet, the top and bottom bars still show up after you zoom - in landscape, they take up somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the screen. This is obviously a killer issue, since the screen’s tiny enough in the first place.

And that limitation of Caravan’s is really a shame, because it has one great bit of behavior the other two don’t. Some trial and error has shown that zooming and scrolling within one page tends to work a little better if you put the image within an HTML page and then upload the HTML page and comic page image to the same directory, and then open that HTML page. All three tools support that, though it’s a little more user-friendly in Files and Caravan. If you could just add a link to the previous and next pages, the HTML option would be pretty much perfect…and you *can* do that, with Caravan. But relative local links don’t work right in Files for some reason. I haven’t tried it in FileMagnet, due to its upload UI annoying me.

The last option is to just upload a directory of images (resized, ideally) through one of these tools, and then browse them. That’d work just as well as putting ‘em in HTML, except that there’s no way to go between images in the image browser for Files or Caravan (again, didn’t try in FileMagnet ‘cos of the UI). Files will let you add image files from its browser to the built-in Photos app, but that means doing so for every image manually. Which isn’t really viable.

There are at least two more apps on the App Store currently that seem to be trying to provide the same sort of functionality as the apps above, but they’re both listed at $14.99 - more than I’m willing to spend for evaluation purposes. Plus, all the apps have basically the same feature set. They’re all using the same built-in PDF reader, etc…but still, here are the expensive ones:

ReaddleDocs requires uploading your files to remote storage managed by Readdle, which seems like an annoying extra step and one that makes you dependent on the publisher staying around. TouchFS seems like it was rushed to market a bit (it was the first of any of these apps to make it onto the App Store), but it does use the same WebDAV approach as Files, which is a big plus, and they’ve got the best support I’ve seen of any of the five - they’ve got some docs, FAQs, support suggestions, and, most importantly, a forum at their website. The developer(s) seem to be responsive to users - I found at least one case of them trying to recreate a user’s bug, figuring out the problem, and getting the user up and running through the forum. If it weren’t 15 bucks, I’d almost certainly buy it and try it out. Oh well.

7 Responses to “Reading Comics on the iPhone: an Initial Survey”

  1. Sherm Cohen Says:

    Hey Andrew…thanks for your mention of my blog. We’re obviously hiking down the same road, as I have been looking at trying out all the iphone apps you just reviewed in this article. Major thanks for saving me the time and heartache!

    I’m going to check out Comic Rack for making PDF’s…I have been using FastStone Image Viewer (free) to batch convert my comic scans down to a managable size. Thanks for reporting your results!

    Best regards, and I’m sure I’ll be talking with you again ^_^ —Sherm
    iphonecomicbookreader.com

  2. Per Sillrén Says:

    I’m the developer of Caravan

    Thank you for your opinions on Caravan. It is very useful to find out what the users miss in terms of features. I have already fixed part of the issues you mention by hiding the navigation bar when documents are viewed in landscape. Future versions will also hide the tab bar at the bottom. Hiding the bars if the user zooms is a great idea that I will consider for the next free update.

    Just want to mention that the advantage of using the iPhone app as the client, rather than the server, is that you can access your computer wherever you are, not only when you are at home as is the case with all the other apps you mention, except ReaddleDocs, which costs 5 times as much as Caravan.

    Again, thanks for a nice review of Caravan and competitors!

  3. FileMagnet review for iPhone | iPhone Comic Book Reader Says:

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    [...] apps and experimented with using them as an iPhone comic book reader. He details his results at: http://andrewbayer.com/blog/2008/08/reading-comics-on-the-iphone-an-initial-survey/ Datacase for [...]

  4. Ash Says:

    Hey,

    Great article. I’ve been looking for a way to read comics on iphone 2.0 since icomic doesn’t exist for 2.0.

    I tried filemagnet and just unarchived the .cbr into folders then send the folders over. I noticed that it crashed regularly and, even resized, it refused to read some JPGs.

    Then I tried files, same method and I actually didn’t even resize, just left them gigantic because I read on the bus and it’s not the most comfortable thing to have close to my face or hunched over.

    Files has worked great, no lag, rarely crashes even with hi res JPGs. Only thing left to make it a bonafid comic book reader is the ability to go to the next image without going back to the image list and to bookmark or open to last image.

    I may give the other apps you mentioned a try if they have these features, otherwise Files is the way to go for me.

    Ash

  5. jim brink Says:

    Hi there — I’m the principal developer of Annotater, a PDF reader for the iPhone. Annotater focuses exclusively on PDF rendering, and has solved a lot of the complications that come up with displaying large and complex documents on the iPhone. We were tipped to your site by a customer who tried us out (with good results!) and mentioned the need for a suitable iphone comic reader; we think Annotater fits the bill!

    We’d be very interested to hear how Annotater stacks up, and especially if there are any additional features or requests that would make Annotater an even better comic-reading app.

  6. Erik erickson Says:

    I’m that customer and I just wanted to confirm: this works well and I’ve been reading some comics in PDF format on my 3G iPhone just fine with Annotater today since Jim was amazing enough to try it out before I even purchased the app.

  7. This Ain’t No Disco » Blog Archive » iPhone App Developers: This is What I Want! Says:

    [...] so a few app developers have stopped by my earlier post on the iPhone and digital comics, and Sherm over at iphonecomicbookreader.com has had a few visit him as well, so in light of that [...]

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