iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

September 25, 2007

I managed to hold out for almost three months. While I had done some testing on an iPhone, I didn’t buy one for myself — that is, not until my 5G iPod met an untimely death against unyielding hardwood and “necessity” provided the required excuse.

reading on the iPhone

In a fit of geekiness, I performed the required hacks on the newly-purchased machine to install third-party applications such as file transfer utilities and the Apache web server. This allowed me to directly move several PDF ebooks onto the phone and to read them from the Safari browser by pointing at its own web server (i.e., no Internet connection required). The one major limitation with this is file size: Mobile Safari refuses to load PDF files much larger than 8 megs or so.

Easy on the Eyes

iPhone text enlarged

Actual iPhone text, enlarged.

I’ve now had several multi-hour reading sessions on the iPhone, and I’m finding that it affirms my earlier impressions that its display and touch interface are quite well suited to the purpose of reading long, text-oriented PDFs. The ultra-sharp screen and flexible zooming — combined with easy rotation to landscape orientation — allow fixed-page (non-reflowable) PDFs to display at a comfortable reading size. While I’ve generally hated reading on small devices like PDAs in the past, the iPhone’s excellent display makes it not just viable but actually quite enjoyable. I read in a variety of lighting conditions, including bright outdoor sunlight, artificial light and total darkness, and in all cases, the display performed brilliantly.

Tactile Pleasures

scrolling a long ebook on the iPhone

Scrolling is pleasantly tactile.

Touching the slippery-smooth glass to scroll through the book made the experience pleasantly tactile, somehow better echoing the positive visceral experience of turning pages of a paper book than the mechanical, button-pushing motion used on most other reading devices. Since the touch interface permits for simultaneous scrolling in both horizontal and vertical directions, I expected to have some trouble with unintentionally moving diagonally instead of straight down, but the system seems to have built-in smarts to ignore such spurious motion off the main axis of movement.

Obstacles and Building Blocks

Lack of a bookmarking function for the book-length PDFs was a major problem. Each time I loaded the book into Safari, I had to manually scroll to the desired page — obviously not an ideal solution.

All in all, my longer-term experience with reading ebooks on the iPhone confirms my initial testing — its hardware and user interface show tremendous potential, but the lack of a readily-accessible file system and full-featured reader software will continue to hamper mainstream users. The building blocks are all in place. It’s now up to Apple — or the growing army of highly creative iPhone hackers — to put together all the pieces.

Related Posts

iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and eBooks: the Video
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard


  1. storing books on the machine itself is, of course, desirable.
    but aside from that fact, why not a web-based reader-program?


  2. I can’t wait till they really work on it to make it easy to use and fully functional, and pre-load some bestsellers as marketing tool 🙂

  3. Bowerbird, there are web-based services like Readdle that let you upload your documents to a web server which can then be accessed on the iPhone. This certainly sounds like a very viable option and much simpler than setting up Apache on the phone! It’s something that I definitely plan to test in the coming days.

    Irving, it seems inevitable that iTunes will someday be upgraded to support written books in addition to audio. We can hope!

  4. […] iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions – The Reader reports on the iPhone screen-reading experience. […]

  5. […] to a tablet-like reader) together make a very functional package for reading a PDF ebook. As with the iPhone, the ability to zoom in on PDF pages is particularly useful, since it allows the book text to be […]

  6. I’m using quickoffice pdf Reader LE 2.5 on my Nokia N73. The reflow mode makes it easy to read long files. I’m keen to buy iPhone provided i can get a similar caliber reader app with it. Wish there would be one. any guesses?

  7. The iPhone third party programming kit has been released in beta form, and the new application distribution store will go live in the summer. I expect that all of our ebook reading problems on the iPhone will be solved then, or shortly thereafter.

  8. I’ve used web based readers with the iphone and they suffer from the same problem all web based apps do –
    1. You have to have constant connection to the web to use them. Try that on a plane, or in a tall building, or riding mass transit, etc.
    2. They are significantly slower than just having the book locally.
    3. They are unnecessarily difficult to use. Managing a local library is easy. Taking additional steps to upload and manage a web library is a pain.
    Its great to have access to web tools when being web based adds features you could not provide for locally. In most other circumstances, web tools are just a stop gap – and in the case of ebook readers, are barely better than nothing at all. I still carry my old PDA around just to have a reliable reader.

  9. Vox, I agree with your assessment of online reading on the iPhone. I’ve been using the various iPhone hacks to install a local web server on my iPhone and thus get around some of those issues, but this is obviously not a reasonable solution for most people and it’s a stopgap at best for me.

    I’m eagerly awaiting the results of the first wave of iPhone third party app development! I suspect a pdf reader will be available immediately, as will some sort of file system to manage local files.

  10. It’s finally out! The best ebook reading program on the iPhone! It even has one touch scrolling to boot. http://reader.dbelement.com

    • Wow great app! I started using the dbelement iphone ebook reader last week and man I’ve never seen a better ebook reader. It loads really fast and it just works!

      I like the way it handles large books, one tap scrolling is perfect. I seriously can’t believe that it’s a webapp.

      Here is a link to their main page for some screenshots: http://dbelement.com/apps/reader

  11. Thank you for the excellent post. I bought an iPhone recently and still figuring out how to grasp the full potential of this marvel.

  12. […] crédito: The Reader […]

  13. The main different between dbelement reader and yongReader is that the later is 100% free. dbelement requires monthly subscription fee. YongReader provides latest “hand-free” reading with adjustable scrolling speed. It has a built-in dictionary (wiki coming soon!) when you tap on a unfamiliar words. YongReader is adding google like search function to search text in the book.

    It is available online and offline reading at


    So you can read on the subway! Read books that others have upload…

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