Author: Elliot Page
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iBooks, Google Play, Crunchyroll
iBooks is a slightly awkward storefront run by the monolithic Apple, purveyors of the iPhone and iPad. It is also one of the most awkward of stores, with its products only available to read on Apple branded hardware. This obviously limits the accessibility of your purchases, unless you are heavily invested in the platform.
As I do not own any current Apple products my ability to comment on this storefront and the products you can buy is very limited, however I will say that the lack of iBooks applications for non-Apple platforms is highly off-putting! From historical experience (2013) searching the iBooks store was an abominable chore and I can only hope it has improved in the intervening time.
If you have used the iBooks store, let us know about your experience in the forum or comments! If I am able to borrow a compatible device and try the iBooks store I will of course update this article.
Google Play Books
Google Play, originally just the app store for Android devices, has morphed and grown in Akira-like fashion to encompass all manner of media both on the Android platform and on all other platforms it can clamber on to. (This last item is in stark relief to the rather isolationist iBooks store from Apple.) One facet of this is its eBook platform, the boringly named Google Play Books, which includes a fairly hefty selection of manga to purchase.
There is a key flaw in Google Play Books that utterly undermines it - navigating the store and actually finding anything you want to buy is such a massive arseache that I do not want to interact with it again until it has been fixed. The only assistance you get in browsing is a dedicated manga store category (a semi-recent addition), but this is less helpful than it sounds as all you get is a list of Top Selling titles, and most of the items shown have a dubious claim to being called manga. The key crime of this layout is that there are no subcategories or other viewing/sorting options - you are stuck with this hodgepodge of titles. The site contains infinite scroll so you can attempt digging into the mass of covers, but after a few screens this ends with no way to summon up more titles or paginate the results. Exacerbating this is that there is simply a lot of cruft in the results, and the first actual manga on the page (at the time of writing) is item number 21 - volume one of One Punch Man. There is flat out no way to easily dive into the catalogue, and it sucks.
From here you are forced to fall back on searching - much like the greater Google Play store the search engine is very robust, but also has a very broad net and tends to give you a lot of spurious results. There are ways to help prime it however. If you look on a volume’s item page you will see there are additional “genres”- these are a descriptive search term as opposed to a category so not directly selectable from the store interface. These have a much better signal to noise ratio but they feel very arbitrary and may not match up to what you expect.
All this this very annoying as well because it becomes apparent there is a lot of content on the store once you start digging. When you do find a volume you want, thankfully you can use “Similar” and “More from the same author” to find more books in the same series, but the ability to navigate is limited beyond this and you constantly feel like you are fighting the store every step of the way. One nice item is that the site has a wishlist feature, so if you do find something you might like to read you can easily find it again later.
The Google Play web reader is really good - an exemplar of clean and efficient design. Everything is white, blue, and cleanly laid out. The reader has three layout modes - single page, double-page spread and “Automatic”, which adjusts based on the screen layout and window size, which works very smoothly. The only issue it has is that two-page layouts are separated out so the pages are shifted to different sides of the screen to mimic a spine - this breaks double-page spreads when series use them, and is not adjustable. The reader holds pages on a linear slider so you can easily drag to or select a page you wish to move to, and even has a little pop-up which (if available) points out which chapter and page you are selecting, so you don't have to eyeball it. A lot of readers admittedly have an implementation of this feature but this is the one that has felt the most seamless. The appm also has a table of contents (again if supported) for easy navigation, bookmarks and “Notes” to a page. The reader caches a good number of pages ahead of you and loads pages quickly even when you are trying to push it to the limit, maintaining reading flow unlike some of the other readers I have looked at. I was honestly very impressed with the reader, quibble with the two-page mode aside.
The store within the Google Play mobile app is a carbon copy of the web-based version, sporting the exact same layout and flaws adjusted for your screen size. The reader within the mobile app is much the same as the web version, with some adjustments and improvements to fit device screen size. The most obvious improvement is a nice “overview” mode which shows pages of your purchases laid out in a stream, showing near full-size images as opposed to thumbnails. This is really helpful when moving around a book and finding your place.
Tapping a page takes you into the main reader where the page(s) take up full display. Automatically moving to a two-page spread when in landscape mode, the mobile app doesn't have the same strange issue with margins and page placement as the web reader does. This only works in tablets and larger screen devices, as on smaller screen devices you still get a one page view. A bizarre side effect of this is that the hotspots to change the page are in the same place on the screen as if you had it portrait, which is really weird and I can only assume is a bug! Once nice addition to the app is a separate “auto-rotate screen” setting in case you don't want to faff with system level defaults.
The mobile app also has a weird 3D page turning animation, a bizarre skeuomorphism in an otherwise very clean and clinical application. Thankfully you can turn this off in the options because it is terrible. Aside from this bizarre item, the app feels very slick and in particular is very responsive on page turns - if moving quickly in a volume it can take a while to catch up as it only caches a few pages either side of where you are, but it handles it gracefully and temporarily gives you a blank page while loading.
The in-app Library helpfully shows books you own but don't have downloaded grayed out when offline, which is a nice touch. You can also read purchased books while online, saving the need to download, but this makes the reader a little sluggish while it loads/downloads pages. The app downloads the file to your device while you have the reader open, which is nice but dependent on the quality of your connection.
In lieu of an external application for offline reading on computers, the service offers an add-on app to the Google Chrome Browser to allow for direct access to your purchases and offline reading. That being said I could not for the life of me get the offline reading functionality to work across multiple devices. When you set a book to be available offline it gives you no progress bar for the download and after this any attempts I made to read the volume failed. At this point I still receive inscrutable errors from the app when refreshing my library and any attempt to read the book in question on that computer fail. The book remains accessible in other vectors however so I cannot truly escape volume one of Black Butler, sadly.
One additional benefit of the Google Play store is that you can download PDF/EPUB files of purchased books where permitted. However, this requires the use of Adobe Digital editions, a comprehensively wretched piece of software, and a compatible reader to copy your books to. On the other end, you can also upload non-DRMed epub files to the site to use in its reader, which is nice but heavily depends on the file being valid. I attempted to upload an epub file purchased from eManga into the site and while it accepted the file it did not render properly and so was unusable in this form. Your personal mileage will vary from book to book with this feature.
Google Play Books is a bizarre storefront that has both great features and utterly wretched flaws that drag it down into overall unsuitability and frustration for the user. The reader is well made in the main, but the Chrome Apps ability to save books for offline use is deeply compromised. The store appears to have lots of content available, but it is nearly impossible to confirm this as it is a nightmare to navigate or get any kind of handle on! The utter lack of search or filtering options in the store in particular is a massive barrier to recommending the service at all. I sincerely hope steps are taken to correct it, pronto.
Crunchyroll’s manga service is a rather unique entry as you get it bundled with a premium subscription on the site, instead of buying individual volumes. With a subscription you get unlimited access to all the content on the service - If you are not a member you can view the most recently released and the first chapter of each series (depending on the title).
Crunchyroll hosts an eclectic combination of titles, from blockbusters (Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail) to a whole host of previously unknown series and a few things in-between, including some series that are published physically by Vertical Inc. Some of the titles, and in particular the large names, are “simulpubs”, a truly odious term that you can see the roots of in their anime simlucast service but one it still hurts to read or type. The amount of content available for each series varies, with some of the bigger titles (like Attack on Titan) having only the chapters that have not yet been collected and released as volumes. Thankfully all of Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru is available, so what more could you want?
The Crunchyroll mobile apps are an exemplary example of streamlined and efficient design. Menus are uncluttered, easy to navigate, and you can quickly jump from title to title as well as access designated favourite titles and previously made bookmarks. One of my personally favourite features is how the app tracks your progress in a series with an elegant orange bar under each chapter. The reader itself is equally unburdened with unnecessary extras, allowing easy intuitive reading and clear options when you do want to use them. The tutorial, typically an onerous and experience interrupting thing on other platforms, is almost masterful in its execution - a yellow circle moving from left to right to instruct you on page turns. It’s also one of the few readers that has a “guided view” option without shoving it down your throat, which I personally appreciate. Historically the app has been dogged by stability issues, especially on Android, however this has been turned around and is now a lot more reliable.
The experience on PC is not quite as stellar, with a number of issues in organisation. While the list of series available on the service are very cleanly laid out for you to choose from, the page provided for each series is terrible. Chapters are clustered under different headings, either under their published volumes or under the “all other chapters” banner of “simulpub”, and within these groups chapters are locked into a horizontally scrolling carousel of five chapters. Compounding this cack-handed organisation is the fact that the majority of the page acts as links to the various volumes or chapters, making it awkward when you accidentally click the wrong chapter, have to back out, find what volume to expand and scroll the chapter list, and so on until you finally find what you want to read. Another big knock is that unlike the mobile apps the web site does not track your progress in a sensible way, and so makes reading a series you were mid-run on a pain in the rear. This information is still buried, however, in the quick chapter select menu once you are in the reader, which is a really awkward place to surface this information! The reader itself once you have a chapter open works well, is lightweight and has all the options you would expect or desire, including the ability to quickly jump around between chapters.
The service in general could use a little more love and attention. New titles appear on the site almost out of thin air, with very little fanfare even on the Crunchyroll site or app. The site used to host a “coming soon” list that has now vanished, and the RSS feed for new chapters is fan supported rather than developed in-house. The dedicated Twitter feed for the manga service was recently rolled into the main Crunchyroll feed, and finding an archive of manga news on the website itself is surprisingly difficult, with most topics subsumed into the generalised “Manga” forum. All of this makes it difficult to actually keep up with goings-on with Crunchyroll manga, and makes it feel like an afterthought for the streaming giant, which is a genuine shame.
Crunchyroll has a nicely streamlined service with few omissions. The reading experience is enjoyable, there are interesting series available that you won’t find elsewhere, and it simply works. There are still things to work on, and it feels like the service itself does not get the love it deserves from Crunchyroll itself. Hopefully these can be addressed as it certainly deserves more praise and attention.