The E-Reading Software That's Better Than Kindle or iBooks

A new deal with Penguin UK means a greater variety of books for the insurgent platform.
Some old Penguin titles (Garry Knight/Flickr)

Want to read books on a screen?

Up to now, two large companies would make that easy for you.

Option #1: Apple’s iBooks system. Chipper and colorful, iBooks is easy to use if you own an iPhone or iPad. In its zeal to convince you that, yes, you are reading a book!, though, it can cartoonishly oversell the reading experience. (Case in point: Apple has patented its page-turning animation.)

Option #2: Amazon’s Kindle devices. The retail giant has both its own line of gray, hardy e-readers and also makes reading software for other platforms, including Apple and Android phones/tablets. It has lots of books to read, but, once purchased, you can only read them on Kindles. Some of its software, too, suffers for its extensibility. At its worst, the Kindle system can feel like Windows 95: closed, hard to leave, and a bit stodgy.

As of this week, though, readers have a new option. Starting immediately, Penguin UK will sell its ebooks on the Readmill system. You can now read the works of best-selling authors—including George Orwell, John LeCarré, and Zadie Smith—on the lesser-known but elegant reading system, Readmill.

Founded in early 2011, Readmill may be the best-designed e-reading system out there. Unlike Amazon or Apple, it doesn’t manufacture hardware of its own. Rather, it has develops e-reading software for Apple and Android devices, which is tied to a web-based social network.

A typical Readmill page: It looks like a book!
(Flickr/Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta)

Readmill has many of the same features as more popular reading systems. Its social network allows recommendations and rating; earlier this fall, it deployed a feature that let you share annotations with your friends, and comment on each others. It is, in other words, one of many reading startups and social networks out there, a competitor to both Amazon’s Kindle system and the Amazon-owned GoodReads social network.

It just presents many of those popular features better, though. It doesn’t demand book ratings from it readers, but it presents well the ratings and recommendations you do choose to give it. Above all, I’m nearly certain it has the best digital typography among e-reading software today. On Readmill, digital books look like books, not text files foisted into an extensible reading enviromnent.

Before the Penguin deal, though, it was hard to find contemporary books for Readmill. Classics could be found at Project Gutenberg. Small, digitally-savvy publishers, like the boutique Emily’s Books and the design house A Book Apart, made their books easy to download to it, too. But publishers—the ones who dominate the best-selling lists—did not.

With the addition of Smith and Colm Tóibín and Anthony Burgess, that’s changed. Readmill isn’t perfect: It might be more expensive to use than Amazon’s Kindle system, for example. But, at least on phones and tablets, it is a far superior experience. If they’re not satisfied with their current options, thoughtful digital readers might want to give Readmill a try.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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