App Review: Bookmark

by Michael Alderete on 12/21/2009 · 12 comments

If you search the App Store for “audiobook” you turn up hundreds of results, most of which are crap. (More on that in a future post.) Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a challenge. Aldo on Audiobooks will only bother to review worthwhile apps.

Bookmark is an alternative audio player dedicated to audiobooks, based on the insight that the iPhone is great for music, but not very well-suited to audiobooks. Bookmark was designed around the central concept that, when listening to a long audiobook, you want different controls for moving around in the much longer tracks, and tools for marking positions in the recording that go beyond just saving where you left off. Bookmark app If you’ve ever listened to a long audiobook track on an iPod, and especially if you’ve ever thought “I want to go back and hear that part again,” you know what this is all about.

Using Bookmark is simple. Start the app, choose a book from the list of titles (Bookmark filters out everything but audiobooks), and press play. In this regard, Bookmark is much like the built-in iPod app. The basics of playback are pretty obvious, with standard controls for play/pause, volume control, and track progress.

Where Bookmark begins to differentiate itself is with the “Time Ribbon” controller, which is a very simple and clever way to skip forward or backward in a track, in increments of 30 seconds, 1, 5, 15, or 30 minutes.

The Time Ribbon

This is a precise method of jumping around in an audiobook, that is more approachable and discoverable than scrubbing in the standard iPod app. If you’ve ever been frustrated trying to go backwards by a minute or two, or dozed off listening to a book in bed, this is for you.

“Heads Up” mode is terrific for listening while driving, when you cannot spare your attention to control the iPod app, or even Bookmark in normal mode. An iPhone or iPod touch normally demands that you look at it to control it, because there are no physical buttons to feel your way around. In Heads Up mode the controls are simplified to only two swipe gestures, which are easy to accomplish without taking your eyes off the road: up and down to pause and resume playback, and side to side to skip forward or backward 15 seconds. This mode could literally save your life. It is the only safe method I know to control a touch-based iPod while driving, unless you have physical controls built into your car stereo or iPhone mount.

Adding Bookmarks The other major difference from the built-in iPod app is the app’s namesake: bookmarks. It’s easy to figure out how to set a new bookmark (though the bookmark editing panel could be simpler). You can create as many bookmarks as you like, give them meaningful names, and add notes to bookmarks, perhaps to remind you of why you saved that position. You can also save notes on the book (track) itself. It is possible to send yourself (or anyone) saved bookmarks and notes via email; this is the only way to export this information from the app.

Like the built-in iPod app, Bookmark can play audiobooks in the background, so you can use another app (say, Bejeweled) while listening. This goes beyond just backgrounding; you can actually switch to the iPod app, and control the audio from there using the standard UI, and then switch back to Bookmark, and use its controls. Switching back and forth is seamless, never pausing or stuttering audio playback.

Bookmark does have a few modest flaws that you should be aware of:

  • I dislike the current visual design of the application. Textured backgrounds and non-standard buttons are mixed with standard iPhone controls. While there are some applications which have successfully departed from the iPhone platform UI standards, it takes a strong visual designer to carry it off. Bookmark 1.1 does not, but I have seen a mockup of a forthcoming version, and it looks fantastic. Something to look forward to.

  • The bookmarking interface needs some work. You should be able to simply tap into the Notes field, instead of needing to hit the Edit button. It would be nice to be able to hit the Next button to move from the bookmark name to the notes field. It’s usable, but this panel feels like a “rough draft” of what the developer eventually intends.

  • The current release has a few other user interface issues, which I expect to be resolved in the next release. The main player window is entirely reworked, resolving issues such as Heads Up mode being buried in the More panel, etc.

  • Bookmark title list Unlike the iPod app, Bookmark does not combine multiple tracks from a single audiobook into a single entry in the titles list. This makes the list unnecessarily long, and is especially problematic for audiobooks which have many shorter tracks, such as from MP3 CDs or eMusic. For this reason, the developer currently recommends Bookmark only for audiobooks which come in long tracks, such as those from Audible or the iTunes Store. This issue is intended to be resolved in the next release.

  • There is no way to view or access existing chapter marks in an audiobook. This is no big deal for many audiobooks, which either don’t have chapter marks, or have them in silly places, but for those that do, it’s extremely irritating to not be able to use them. Unfortunately, this is a limitation of the iPhone SDK, so it’s in Apple’s hands to resolve.

  • The Time Ribbon controller, while very interesting, suffers from some implementation flaws. The biggest is that audio playback is immediately affected when you hit a skip level, which can be jarring. I think it would be better if the app waited until you let go of the controller to jump the appropriate distance. At the very least, a half- or quarter-second pause to see if you were moving past a skip level to a greater one would be a good idea.

  • While you can move back and forth between Bookmark and the built-in iPod app while a book is playing, unexpected position changes are almost inevitable if you do it when a book is not playing. This is because by default Bookmark stores its own Last Played position for each book, instead of sharing it with the iPod. (The alternative, sharing the position, has other issues, due to iPod app bugs that unset the Last Played position after syncing. Damned if you do…) The next release will have a work-around that should handle this better. In the mean time, you can avoid it by sticking exclusively with either Bookmark or the iPod app for your audiobooks.

  • Stability and glitches are an (occasional) issue. I crashed the application once, and encountered another oddity, where navigating from the current book to the list of titles whirred for a while, and then reported that I had no titles on my device yet (this is reportedly an iPhone OS bug). I’ve encountered incorrect cover art in the titles list and on the playback screen. And occasionally saving a bookmark would silently fail, requiring me to re-enter it.

To reiterate: these are all modest issues, and many of them should be resolved in the next release. Bookmark works well most of the time, and has no severe flaws.

Summary

Version reviewed: v1.1.1

Overall, Bookmark represents a useful tool for regular audiobook listeners, especially if you listen (and re-listen) actively, or are using a book as a reference or object of study. Being able to set more than one bookmark, and name and annotate them, is invaluable.

Bookmark is also great if the standard iPod playback controls frustrate you when listening to audiobooks. The Time Ribbon is extremely approachable and usable, and most people will like it better than the (non-obvious) scrubbing controls in the iPod app.

Heads Up playback mode is worth the price of the app all by itself, if you listen to books while driving alone.

Bookmark has a few flaws, but if you listen to audiobooks regularly, it is easily worth the $3 purchase price.

Pluses:

  • Innovative “Time Ribbon” controller.
  • “Heads Up” mode.
  • Multiple bookmarks and notes.
  • Can play audiobooks in background mode.

Minuses:

  • Non-standard UI, and occasional polish issues.
  • Cannot use or display embedded chapter marks. (SDK issue.)
  • Minor bugs and stability problems.

More Information:

Editorial Note

I paid for my own copy of Bookmark, and I received no compensation for this review. I did share a draft of this review with DockMarket, the developer of Bookmark. A “real” journalist would not do this, but I believed that getting feedback and a peek at the next release was more important than “pure” journalistic integrity.

Also note that I add affiliate links to products mentioned on this site. I only add such links after writing, and they don’t influence what I write about.

GY January 15, 2010 at 11:51 am

After reading the review I was under the impression that this would help with listening to audiobooks on my ipod, especially fast forwarding/rewinding through the track when I loose my place. So, I bought it and now it looks like this is only for ipod touch? and Iphone? I nave a 4g nano. :( bummer. How do I find my spot in a long audiobook tract? fast forwarding 15 seconds at a time is extremely annoying. I should have stuck with a sansa clip I’m really frustrated with my nano so far.

Alderete January 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

@GY: Yes, apps are only for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I thought referring to the App Store, and only mentioning the iPhone and iPod Touch by name would have been clear enough, but I’ll be more explicit in the future.

As for being frustrated with your Nano, it sounds like you need to learn to use the (non-obvious) controls for dealing with longer tracks. See my post on this topic, “Backing Up in an Audiobook”:http://aldoblog.com/2009/04/backing-up-in-an-audiobook/. And there is lots more on the topics of iPods and audiobooks here on the site, most of which is relevant to the Nano, which was my preferred iPod for many years.

Kamran April 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Michael, have you experienced any bugs after the bookmark app was recently updated. When I open the app, the book starts from the beginning and there is NO sound. When I exit the app, I start hearing the audio (from the beginning) from the native iPod app, which I then open and manually adjust to where I had left off.

John April 11, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Great site, bookmarkapp 1.2.1 is great compared to the stock ipod touch fw 3.1.2 itunes 9.1, makes the touch almost useable for audiobooks. I still think my nano is a better mp3 player with smart playlists. and at least any ipod other than the touch still works with live updating (which is broken on iphone os 3.1).

Kit Winterer February 3, 2011 at 2:45 am

I’m happy to have found your site and your discussions on audiobooks on the nano to have been invaluable. I use that each night with the timer on for 30 minutes. Is such a function on the Touch? I’ve put a few audio books on the Touch during synch but don’t know how to get to them.

Have you found any app which includs a timer? What procedure should I use to listen to audio books on my Touch using no additional apps?

Alderete February 3, 2011 at 2:55 am

@Kit: The iPod Touch (and all iOS devices, like the iPhone) does indeed have a sleep timer, but it’s a little more complicated to use. It’s not in the iPod app, it’s actually an “alarm” option in the Clock app’s Timer function. Here’s how to use it:

  1. Go into the Clock app, and tap Timer in the bottom right corner.
  2. Set the amount of time to e.g. 30 minutes.
  3. Tap the When Timer Ends button, and scroll down to the very bottom of the list. Most everything is alarm sounds, but at the very bottom is a separate item Sleep iPod.
  4. Tap Sleep iPod, and then tap Set in the top right corner.
  5. Tap the Start button.
  6. Switch to the iPod app, and start your program. It will fade out when the timer ends, and your iOS device will go to sleep.

HTH!

Alderete February 3, 2011 at 3:01 am

@Kit: I should add, if that sounds cumbersome, I certainly agree! Indeed, every once in a while, I forget how to do it!

So, here’s an even better tip: the Audible app has a built-in sleep timer. If you get your content from Audible, that’s yet another way that the Audible app is superior to the standard iPod app for playing audiobooks.

Peter from Australia July 10, 2011 at 7:13 am

This is a great site, but I think you have missed the most important poit of all: never, and I mean never should a savvy ipod user ever label a track as an audiobook. All files should be marked as music. Go to Options in thr Get info dialogue box for any track and you will see that you can mark a box that says ‘remember playback position’ and select the music option from the drop down menu next to ‘media kind.’ This means that the spoken word file will appear in the music meu in itunes and ipods, but will play like an audio book file, so you can move to another track and it will remember your place in each spoken word file.

Why do this? Because it lets you search spoken word tracks on your ipod by genre. Audiobook tracks just sit on your ipod in a list. ou can’t search them by genre so they can be very hard to find. It’s much better to search by genre from the music menu. In fact ‘genre’ is always the first button I push on my nano’s home screen. And you can invent your own genres. I have, ‘plays’, ‘novels’, ‘mystery’, ‘short stories’, ‘comedy’, ‘renaissance drama.’ As for music I have ‘classical/instrumental’, ‘classical opera’, etc, as well as ‘modern.’

Most of my spoken word files come from recordings from BBC radio (the only true source of good radio comedy and drama in English) or from the itunes store. You can even turn podcasts into music tracks and search for them using genre.

Of course I’d have a least 100 spoken word files on my ipod nano at one time

Alderete July 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm

@Peter: I see your use case, and understand why you would choose to work with the genre browser. I think the key is that you have dozens to hundreds of individual tracks that you need to browse through, and that you’re on a classic (non-iOS) device. In that specific case, marking tracks as “Music” in order to use the genre browser could be useful (as long as you’re also willing to add the genre information to tracks, etc).

Personally, all of my short form spoken word comes in the form of podcasts, and tend to focus on non-fiction topics, mostly technology. I know there are great radio programs and so on, but for fiction I stick with novels. And there, because I am working with only a couple of tracks per book, I find the grouping mechanisms offered by my iPhone to be pretty solid, and being separate from Music is an advantage.

This on-device management is one of the reasons I now recommend iOS-based devices as the best devices for audiobooks. There are significant differences in how the iPhone and iPod Touch handle audiobooks, that make them much easier to work with than the older “classic” devices like your nano. Even the new Nano Touch isn’t much better than the older scroll wheel-based nanos. Very good, but not in the same league as iOS devices.

At any rate, you certainly seem to prefer your strategy for managing your content, but I think your recommendation of “never, and I mean never” is a little extreme! I can’t endorse it as something I’d use myself, as I’m pretty convinced that it’s a work-around for a specific use case: lots of short tracks on a classic iPod. Glad it works for you!

Gipr August 9, 2011 at 3:12 am

Rockbox is so much better than the built-in ipod players, and it is free.

Sharon December 21, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I am downloading library books in WMA format to my new IPOD Touch which I got just for audiobooks. What a hassle! I am about to give up, but I will try the Bookmark app described here before returning this IPOD. What is the best device and app to get for audiobooks? I listen to them everyday of my life always at bedtime for several hours on my way to sleep. With CDs I can find my place with little trouble because I know which CD was playing and can FF through the tracks.
With audiobook playback I am confused and frustrated with the whole process. Itunes does not even list a downloaded audiobook even though I synced them to the IPOD. I have Itunes10 installed. I won’t be buying audiobooks. Most of the ones from the public library are in WMA format and a few in MP3. At least I have graduated from cassette tapes to CDs, but this new IPOD thing is frustrating. I want to get an IPAD also—will there be the same problems with audiobooks?
Thanks for listening.

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