I remember the feeling quite vividly—sitting in my college courses on the first day of class, staring at a syllabus with books I knew I’d never be able to obtain in an accessible format before we were to review them. I attended a great university and had access to a fabulous disability services office, but far too many books were simply out of reach in a timely fashion.
I’d talk to peers who would download their books onto a Kindle, and as time progressed, soon they’d load them on their iPhones and iPads to tote around wherever they went. But, sadly, Amazon seemed to stubbornly push inaccessible Kindle products onto the market without any regard to the blindness community.
That all changed yesterday morning, though, and many have voiced their excitement for the newly accessible Kindle for iOS application (available now through Apple’s App Store). That’s right—the blind, visually impaired and dyslexic now have full access to Amazon’s catalog of over one million books, magazines and newspapers, all at the touch of a button in the Kindle Store.
After playing around with the app, connecting my braille display and exploring tactilely and buying (more than) a few books to try out, I want to share some initial impressions and a general breakdown of what you can expect from the app.
Amazon’s Kindle for iOS has a simple interface upon startup. If you have purchased books already, you’ll be taken to your cloud bookshelf with an option to download each title. If you’ve already downloaded these texts, you can click and launch them with a single-finger double tap gesture, or a split-tap gesture.
While in the book of your choice, Amazon has made the interface incredibly simple, boasting no buttons, labels or other controls you may expect to see in an app like this. You are presented with the book’s text—and that’s all. This is nice because the text fills the entirety of the screen, making it much easier to scroll line by line with your finger.
The Reading Experience
I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks. The dramatization of text by some readers tends to be a turnoff for me, and it’s important that I have access to the text in a way that I can read character by character if need be. Solid, intuitive and flexible navigation is imperative for any reading app or device–and it’s why I’ve really enjoyed using Apple’s iBooks app the past year or two.
In terms of navigation, Kindle for iOS is absolutely on-par with the iBooks experience. I can navigate character by character, word by word, and line by line, which is excellent. In one word—it’s “flawless”.
Since there are no on-screen controls while in the reading view, you can either interact with the text by a read all from top gesture (which is a two-finger swipe downward), navigate via a rotor gesture (use the rotor to select whether you’ll move by character, word or line), move your finger through the text or move between pages (with a three-finger swipe left or right), which prompts the app to automatically start reading content on the new page. It’s simple, easy and very effective.
Making Highlights and Creating Notes
This is easily one of the most exciting features I’ve found in the Kindle for iOS app—and best of all, it’s very accessible. To highlight a section of text, or to create a note about something you’ve read, perform a single-finger, double-tap and hold around the general area in which you’d like to make your annotations. Hold your finger in this spot for a moment, and then lift it. If you’ve done it correctly, VoiceOver will announce “pink highlighter”, which represents the color used to mark your selected section…but we’re not done yet.
If you were to flick around the screen at this point, you’d see options to change the highlighter color, share the selection and various other options, but here’s the kicker—you can actually adjust the selection (from edge to edge) using the flick gesture up and down. Flick until you find “left most edge” and “right most edge”. By flicking up and down while focusing on either edge, you’ll move the edge of your mark forward and backward. If you pause for a moment after adjusting your selection, voiceOver will announce the contents of your highlighted section. Wow!
After selecting the text you’d like to mark, you can save it as a mark, create a note or look up a word in the dictionary. You can also Google your selection and search for it on Wikipedia, as well. I think this is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else out there—and I’ve already used it to annotate several of the books I’m currently reading.
Accessing the Menu While Reading a Book
Since there are no controls found on-screen while reading your book, you’re probably wondering how to perform basic features like bookmarking a page, navigating to a specific page or location, etc etc. All of this (and much more) can be found in the menu, which is accessible by performing a single-finger double tap (or a split-tap gesture) anywhere on-screen while in the reading view. VoiceOver will announce “menu On”, and you’re now able to explore the options for your book.
Basic Controls inside the Menu
After opening the menu, you will be presented with several options pertaining to your book. In the top-lefthand corner, you will find a button labeled “Home”, which will take you back to your bookshelf. At the center and top of the screen is a text label which states the name and author of the book you are currently reading.. Single-finger flicking to the right (or navigating to the upper-righthand corner of the screen), you’ll find a “Bookmark” button. This will bookmark the current page (the page visible when you opened the menu).
One Note about Bookmarks
Editor’s Note: After posting this review, I discovered it is, in fact, possible to determine whether the current page is bookmarked through the button in the menu. VoiceOver users will need to have “hints” enabled, and the application will report whether or not a bookmark is already set for the current page. Thanks so much to @arm4r and @paras12 for tipping me off to this!
If Amazon could make one improvement about this menu, it would be the ability to see whether a bookmark is currently present for the page. I believe they could accomplish this by having VoiceOver announce “Bookmark selected button) if a bookmark has already been set for the current page. The trick here is—if a bookmark IS already present, pressing this button will remove it without any indication to the VoiceOver user.
“Return to Book” Option
In the very middle of the screen, there is an option to jump back into your book. This option remains present in some subpages of the menu—but not always.
The Bottom Row of Controls
The bottom row of controls holds most of the nitty-gritty details most users will want to access. From left to right, these controls include:
- Back: This option appears to always be “dimmed”. Not sure what it does…
- View Options: This menu controls various aspects of the visual presentation of your book, including font style, font size and brightness.
- Go To: This menu offers a wide variety of locations in which you can be taken to throughout your book. I’ll discuss this menu in greater detail in a moment…
- Search: The Kindle for iOS app comes with an insanely powerful search tool, which allows you to comb the entire contents of your book for a word or phrase. I’ll cover this one, too, in a bit more depth a little later.
- Sync: This option will sync the reading position of your current Kindle device with the furthest point reached on any other device. This could be quite handy if you use Kindle for iOS on an iPhone AND an iPad.
- The Progress Slider: The progress slider is located just below this row of five buttons, and represents your current location as a percentage. You can adjust this slider with the flicking gesture up or down, or you can do a single-finger, double-tap and hold to adjust more precisely.
The “Go To” Menu
This menu allows you to jump through your book at varying navigation levels, such as by page, by bookmark or back to the beginning. Some “go to” options include:
- Cover: This option will place you on the cover of your current book.
- Table of Contents: Choosing this option will take you directly to the table of contents, allowing you to navigate by chapter or section. (NOTE: The table of contents DOES work with VoiceOver, but you’ll have to navigate slowly with your finger because these are not visible as links.)
- Beginning: Selecting this option will take you to the very beginning of your book, past the cover, table of contents and most introductory content.
- Location: Pressing the “Location” button will allow you to navigate directly to the page of your choice. Use the keypad to type the page number, and then locate an “OK” button toward the middle-right section of the screen.
- Book Extras: Here’s where Kindle shines over most any other options you’ve likely tried—this section contains crowdsourced selections taken from the book, which means other readers took the time to select portions of the book that stood out to them, highlights and memorable moments, and favorite quotes. There is also a section which includes notes for parents. One other interesting thing about this menu is the ability to toggle “spoilers” on and off, which will help you avoid any revealing content as you dig through the extra features of your book.
- My Notes and Marks: This section lists all of the bookmarks and highlights you’ve made throughout the book. Note that you can remove these by using the “Edit” button at the top-lefthand corner of the screen.
- Popular Highlights: Keeping with the notion of crowdsourcing, Amazon pulls in the most popular highlights from all other users reading the currently selected book. This is one feature I absolutely love! Kindle for iOS tells you the location of the highlighted section, as well as how many people have highlighted it.
- X-Ray: X-Ray allows readers to explore “the bones of a book.” Tap on any page as you read to find chapters and locations that mention ideas, characters, and important places, as well as background info, biographies, and more from Shelfari and Wikipedia.
- Before You Go: This section contains options for you to rate, review and share the currently selected book. The selections made here will no doubt factor into the recommendations Amazon makes to you for future reading.
The Search Feature
The search functionality in Kindle for iOS is by far one of the most powerful I’ve seen in a reading option. But as impressive as its ability to search through your text, I’m in love with the way it displays your results.
After selecting the “Search” option, you’ll be presented with a standard search/edit field and the iOS keyboard. Type your query and press “Go”. The app will process the text and present you with a list of results, with the page number listed to the left of the section where your word or phrase is present. You’ll also notice a count at the bottom of the screen for the tonal number of instances the app found for your search.
Where Amazon Did It Right
I think it’s often easy for us to assume companies aren’t listening to our accessibility concerns, or the timetable for accessibility isn’t moving fast enough, but the Kindle for iOS app is a classic example of patience paying off. There are no flaws I’ve found in the app’s accessibility, with only one minor preference issue. There has been extensive beta testing for the accessibility improvements, as is obvious by the flawless execution made by Amazon.
The standout feature, and one which Apple can take cues, is the highlighter found in the reading view. The granularity at which your highlighted selection can be edited is remarkable. If you flick around the screen, you’ll notice VoiceOver report “left most edge” and “right most edge”. Performing a flick gesture up or down will reposition the respective edges of your highlighted section (before you approve it). This is highly impressive,a and not present in iBooks.
Summing It All Up
My allegiance rarely sways between two products. I tend to stay loyal to solutions that have worked well for me in the past—and I’d assume many reading this can relate to that idea. But, given Amazon’s impressive offering and the affordability of many selections, I could see myself using Kindle for iOS more often than the iBooks offering from Apple. It will be intriguing to see if Amazon continues this stance on accessibility, and extends it to their other software and hardware offerings.
Want to Enter the #AccessibleKindle Giveaway?
Fedora Outlier is absolutely thrilled about the accessibility of Kindle for iOS—and so much so that we’re giving away a $25 gift card to Amazon.com to one lucky winner. for details and a couple ways to enter, visit this post about the giveaway. Hurry, giveaway ends on Wednesday, May 8th at 5PM EST!
What is your take on the Kindle for iOS update? Have you purchased or downloaded any books yet? What has your experience been like? Take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments section!