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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Innovative “Time Ribbon” controller.
- “Heads Up” mode.
- Multiple bookmarks and notes.
- Can play audiobooks in background mode.
- Non-standard UI, and occasional polish issues.
- Cannot use or display embedded chapter marks. (SDK issue.)
- Minor bugs and stability problems.
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.