App Review: Audible Audiobook Player

by Michael Alderete on 11/5/2010 · 11 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.

My favorite source for audiobooks is Audible.com, an online service offering over 85,000 digital downloads of audiobooks and other spoken word content (more here). This summer Audible released the Audible audio player app, dedicated to playing Audible content and interacting with the Audible.com service directly, without requiring the use of a computer or iTunes. The app is free, but requires the use of an Audible.com account.

Audible app

The short version of this review is, if you’re an Audible customer with an iOS device, getting this free app is a no-brainer. It’s intuitive and optimized for audiobooks, it plays in the background just like the built-in iPod app, it adds useful features not in the built-in iPod app, and its design is clean, simple, tasteful. I’ve used it exclusively for audiobooks for the last four months, and it’s a great replacement for the iPod app. I plan to continue using it indefinitely. I still use the iPod app for podcasts and non-Audible audiobooks, and regularly miss Audible app features.

The Audible app has three major functions:

  • Browse and search your Audible library.

    Browse by Recent Browse by Author Search Results

    In addition to book title, you can browse content by author and by recent activity (purchase, download, playback). Searches can be on author, title, narrator, or all three. If you have a lot of audiobooks, you will realize immediately how big an improvement this is over the built-in iPod app. I normally keep 30-40 titles on my iPhone, but I have more than 275 titles in my Audible library (I’ve been a customer for 7 years). The new ways to browse are a godsend.

  • Download titles to your iPhone (or iPod Touch, or any iOS device).

    Download Button Download Queue Downloaded

    The Audible app allows you to download audiobooks directly to your device, without needing to connect to your computer. (You do need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network, as virtually any audiobook will be greater than the 10 megabyte limit for 3G downloads.) Browse to an item, and tap the download button, it couldn’t be easier. This is a fantastic feature for people who have difficulty getting iTunes to sync the way they want it to, and it’s great for making last-minute decisions about what to listen to, without needing to break out your laptop.

  • Play your audiobooks.

    Playback Simple Playback Max Chapter List

    The app features a slew of specialized navigation controls that are specific to longer, linear spoken word content, including a no-look mode for controlling playback while driving. Particularly useful features include a “skip back 30 seconds button” that is larger than in the iPod app, dedicated chapter navigation buttons, an integrated sleep timer, and the ability to create bookmarks at any point in a recording. Overall, audiobook playback is easier and more obvious than with the iPod app.

Other Features

The app additionally includes a number of smaller features worth noting. There is a news tab, with notes about upcoming releases, insider notes, author appearances, awards, and other audiobook news. A stats tab shows you various statistics about your listening habits, and even allows you to earn badges for specific behaviors, like binge listening, listening all night, and so on. You can bookmark specific spots in a recording and take notes on it, much like you can with the Bookmark app I reviewed previously. And there are various things you can email or post to Twitter or Facebook, if you want to share with others. Finally, the shop tab serves as a launch pad for switching to the Safari browser and accessing the mobile-optimized version of the Audible.com web site.

News & Events Listening Stats Share

I won’t bore you with additional details; if you want to see more, Audible has written a very good user manual for the app, which you can download in PDF format. (This is more useful than built-in help, since if you don’t have an Audible.com account, you can’t really play with the app directly.) Don’t let the manual intimidate you; it is almost entirely unnecessary, because the app is so intuitive, differing from the iPod app only in ways that make sense for the purpose of the app.

Notes and Limitations

  • Content downloaded inside the Audible app is not added to your on-board iPod library, or synced back to iTunes, but is instead stored in the app’s data storage area. If you want the content in iTunes, you’ll have to download it separately, on your computer.

  • The app can play Audible content from your standard iTunes library, that you sync to your device as usual using iTunes, but it is treated as a slightly second class citizen, losing the ability to skip to built-in chapter marks. This doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it’s irritating. And when you combine this with the first issue, the two distinct libraries have the potential to create a collection management problem down the line.

  • In the four months I’ve used it, the app has crashed on me a few times, over multiple versions. But, it has never lost my place in a book or a download. Just restart the app, and continue where you were.

  • I’ve noticed issues with author names not always being properly grouped. For example, I found my Michael Connelly books in three groups, and my Lois McMaster Bujold titles in seven different groups. This looks like minor whitespace or spelling discrepancies in the Audible data. These are not problems with the app per se, but rather with the audiobook database and metadata on the Audible.com site. There were also occasional encoding issues on foreign names, e.g., Per Wahlöö & Maj Sjöwall, and this probably is an app issue.

    Author Name Problems Encoding Problems

  • Shopping in the store is a bit awkward, involving a swap out to Safari, where you browse a version of the web site optimized for mobile devices. (I suspect this is a limitation due to Apple’s terms for selling in the iTunes Store.) On the mobile version of the site, I can’t access the My Next Listen queue, which is where I personally store my “real” wish list. (The wish list, which is accessible, is where I keep my “maybe someday” list.) You can switch to the full site, and it’s usable in mobile Safari. Minor awkwardness aside, it is useful to be able to make purchases from your phone.

Summary

Version Reviewed: v1.3, released September 20th, 2010

If you are an Audible.com customer and have an iPhone or iPod Touch, get this app right now. You will end up loving it. It makes downloading and listening to your Audible content easier, even to the point of cutting your computer out of the loop.

Pluses:

  • Integrated, soup-to-nuts experience for Audible content.
  • Terrific controls and user interface for audiobooks.
  • News, stats and badges are fun.

Minuses:

  • Audible only.
  • Separation of app audiobooks library and standard iTunes library.
  • Minor glitches.

More Information:

Editorial Note

The Audible app is free, but the Audible.com service is not. I pay for my Audible subscription myself. I have added affiliate links to products mentioned in this review, but only after writing the review. Affiliate relationships have not affected the content of this review in any way.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kamran Hashmi November 5, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Great review. i was longing for an Audible app for a long time and have been using it exclusively for the past 3-4 months. Some people unfairly criticized the initial version for not letting users download books directly through the app but I still found it convenient not to download to itunes and manually sync it with my iphone. The subsequent version was just icing on the cake.

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Ron Baker November 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I had such high hopes for this app, but I have found it to be extraordinarily unstable on my iPhone 3G. (Perhaps it performs better on newer phones.) More often than not, the app simply will not launch. Sometimes I have to reboot the phone to launch it. This would be less frustrating than it is, except that it halts playback (99% of the time) when launching. If it then starts crashing, I have no audio.

I haven’t tried it recently, and don’t believe I’ve downloaded a full title, but I’m almost positive that I have started playback of an audiobook larger than 10GB while it was downloading from Audible. Essentially, streaming. That was sweet.

One other minor complaint: I find the designations of the various libraries a little confusing. There’s too much overlap in the naming of the Audible and iPod libraries, and I always have to flounder around a bit to find newly added content.

I’ve gone back to joining multiple-file books (using Markable on PC), and just using the iPod app. Much faster, and very stable.

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Alderete November 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm

@Ron: You make an excellent point, and I’ll need to revise my review, and reviewing practices. I only tested the Audible app on my iPhone 4. I would bet that the stability issue has to do with the limited amount of RAM in the iPhone 3G. I still have my old one, so I’ll give it a try, and see if I experience the same issue. And I’ll make sure to do that for all future reviews. Thanks for the catch!

On the libraries confusion, I’m in agreement. Does that not come through strongly enough? I think it’s enough of a problem that, though I still consider it minor, I am hoping that Audible will eventually find a way to consolidate onto just the standard iPod library. (There are limitations on what a third-party app can do to the library in iOS right now.)

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Ron Baker November 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Oh, it comes through strongly enough. You were just thinking about it more clearly than I was, and I didn’t connect the dots.

I wonder if it would be possible for the Audible interface to simply merge its own library with the iPod library in its user interface. That would help with the confusion. Possible problems…

:: On the iPhone 3G, Audible titles not in the iPod library won’t play in the background, a source of possible confusion.

:: There might be some chaos if you had the same title in both libraries… which does happen from time to time.

Soon enough, I expect that 3G testing will be moot. Apps are outstripping the capabilities of the older phones pretty fast, even when they’re nominally or superficially compatible. I’m not so much annoyed with Audible over the instability as disappointed. And, maybe, motivated to upgrade my phone. I listen to an entirely unbelievable number of audiobooks. So, while it might sound insane to spend several hundred dollars on a phone so I can use a free app, in the long run it would be an awfully low cost per hour of listening ease and pleasure.

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Stephanie November 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Have you checked out the Bookmark app?

http://bookmarkapp.com/

They are IMO the best audio book app…can use it for audiobooks (audible books as well as non-audible) plus podcasts. The time ribbon is the best feature…lets you automatically jump ahead or back by 30s or 1, 5, 15 and 30 mins. I wrote a review here:

http://www.throwingmarshmallows.com/home/favorite-things-bookmark-app.html

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Alderete November 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm

@Stephanie: Yep, “I reviewed Bookmark last year”:http://aldoblog.com/2009/12/bookmark-app-review/. It’s nice, and more recent versions have improved the user interface substantially. For Audible audiobooks, the Audible app is a better player, but if you have a substantial collection of non-Audible audiobooks, Bookmark is a nice supplement to the built-in iPod app.

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Doug March 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

I love being able to download Audible books directly. However, the player has driven me crazy a couple of times. If you accidentally hit the >> button (which is close) it goes to the next part of the book, and then when you go back to the part you were on, it goes to the beginning. Arrrgh. I recently tried Bookmobile, and am liking it a lot. You have to sync to get the files, though.

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Alderete March 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

@Doug: Yes, it always pays to be careful with which iPod controls you tap, never more true than on the iOS-based devices. But, are you sure you’re skipping all the way back to the beginning? When I use the button, it goes back to the beginning of the chapter, not the book. (This of course requires that the book has chapter marks embedded, but virtually all Audible books do these days.) At that point, you can drag the slider at the top to return to your place pretty easily. Maybe not the case if you’re driving…but then, neither was trying to play with the controls in the first place! ;-)

Another hint: you can hide the and »| buttons by “pushing” down the bottom controls panel, so that you only see the Play / Pause button, the Skip Back 30 button, and the Bookmark button. All of these are pretty safe to tap accidentally, so misfires have minimal consequences.

I haven’t tried Bookmobile, I’ll have to give it a look. Thanks for the pointer!

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Maryanne Kiri May 2, 2012 at 5:15 am

Well what a pain in the bum - I have more than one mobile device and have this app on all three - so of course I hoped to be able to synch them all using iTunes Sync. WRONG! Books are downloaded to iPad 2 via this mobile app but then I can’t get them to synch to my Macbook in order to resynch to the other iPad and iPhone. Yes audible account is authorised in iTunes. And I really do not want to download these books again it takes hours and too much data allowance for my mobile internet account (No can’t do it at home as I travel a lot and this is shy I use audiobooks!) Seems to be a glitch in the Audible Mobile app ??

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Alderete May 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm

@Maryanne: Sadly, no, you have it right, the Audible app does not sync between devices. If that’s a genuine need, then it’s a serious deficiency you’ll have to manage around.

But, do you really need to download an audiobook to all of those devices? Why not just make your iPhone the only device you use to listen to audiobooks? I have found the iPad to be physically awkward for such purposes (I listen mostly when I’m in the car, on the treadmill, or trying to go to sleep). And using my MacBook would be even worse!

If you only try to download to one device (and maybe download a second time to your MacBook, in batches when you’re at home, for backup purposes), you’ll have a much easier time of it.

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CalamityStriker July 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm

I recently downloaded audible to my Toshiba thrive tablet. Unfortunately I am not able to sync the audio book I downloaded from the tablet to my San a which is the mp3 player I use for my car. The sansa device does not connect to the internet and only plays audio books I sync to it. I don’t own a laptop, only the Toshiba tablet. The Audible app that’s on my tablet does not have the option to syn. Any suggestions?

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