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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Integrated, soup-to-nuts experience for Audible content.
- Terrific controls and user interface for audiobooks.
- News, stats and badges are fun.
- Audible only.
- Separation of app audiobooks library and standard iTunes library.
- Minor glitches.
- Audible player in the App Store
- Audible app web page
- Audible mobile apps web page (for Blackberry & Android)
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.