App Review: Recorded Books Audiobook Apps

by Michael Alderete on 1/13/2010 · 6 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.

In my review of the Bookmark iPhone app, I noted that for the long tracks of an audiobook, the standard controls of the iPod app, optimized for 3 minute music tracks, can be frustrating. Bookmark is one solution to this issue. Another comes in the form of self-contained audiobook apps from Recorded Books.

Recorded Books audiobook apps

These audiobook apps are found in the App Store section of iTunes, rather than in the Audiobooks section. You are buying not merely the audio portion of the audiobook, but also an app that will play it back. Indeed, you can only play the audiobook from its dedicated app; you cannot use the iPod app, or Bookmark, etc.

These apps are the iPhone equivalent of the Playaway format: player and book baked into a single device. The idea is to make an audiobook as easy to use as a regular book — a single (physical, for the Playaway) object that you pick up and take with you, no other items needed. The self-contained audiobook app makes the experience of buying an audiobook, getting it onto your iPhone, and playing it simple and straightforward. In theory.

Sawtelle audiobook appThe experience goes like this. After you have purchased the app and synched it to your iPhone, you will find the app’s icon on one of your home screens (here, the bottom left corner, above the Phone app). For the high-quality commercial books, the app’s icon is a miniature version of the book cover, a nice way to spot the book easily. (On the other hand, if your home screens are anywhere near as crowded as mine, giving each book a spot on them would be a serious organization issue.)

When you first launch the app, it will flash the book cover, and then go to the main app screen, which is fixed in landscape view, and begin playing the book:

Audiobook app main screen

Only the first chapter of the audio is included in the app itself; when you start the app, the rest of the audio will be downloaded automatically, in the background. You can only listen to parts that have finished downloading. The app can (apparently) download parts over a WiFi, 3G, and even EDGE connections. I write apparently because it gave no warning when I was downloading on a slower connection, and simply allowed it. While I experienced timeouts on non-WiFi connections, there is no way to know if this is inherent to the app, or if I was just getting a bad mobile connection in my house (AT&T in San Francisco is notorious).

Feedback about the download consists of text progress messages, “Part 2 of 54”, alternating with an estimated time remaining (though I saw estimates only while on WiFi, never for slower connections). Depending on the length of the book and the speed of your connection, downloading could take 20 minutes, or hours. If you are sitting in your easy chair listening to the book, the background downloading is unobtrusive and won’t bother you at all. But be sure to plan ahead if you’re expecting to listen to your book on a plane, or where you otherwise won’t have a connection. And understand that downloading only occurs while the app is running, and only while your device is “awake.”

Controlling Playback

The app controls for play/pause, skip backward and forward, and volume are obvious and intuitive, in box #3:

Audiobook app controls

The skip buttons take you backwards or forwards by 30 seconds, probably the most useful interval for a skip button. The progress meter in box #2 is a slider that allows you to drag the playback point to any position in the current chapter. Less obvious, you can drag through the table of contents, box #1, and clicking a chapter title takes you to that chapter. Very nice. These controls allow you to easily reach any point in the book with just a few clicks or drags.

There is a sleep timer, which can be set to turn off the book after 15 or 30 minutes, and a playback speed button, to allow you to play the book at 1x or 2x speed (box #4). The double-speed playback is clear and understandable, but loses some of the nuance in the narrator’s performance. If you’re in a hurry to finish a book for a reason (due date, book club meeting, etc.), go for it, but otherwise, hey, this is supposed to be enjoyable, why are you trying to make it end faster?

The user interface is attractive, and in terms of layout, very well designed. If it were not all crammed onto one screen, it would be terrific. Unfortunately, the main playback control buttons are too small, and it’s very easy to hit the wrong button even when giving the screen your full attention. It would be impossible to control while driving a car without dangerous distraction.

The two halves of the screen, table of contents and the main playback controls, should be separated onto individual screens and enlarged, with controls for moving back and forth between them. This would be easy to do, and would give you a way to use the app in portrait (normal) orientation, too. Some performance optimizations would be good; I found the interface to occasionally be somewhat sluggish, which made the small buttons doubly irritating, because it was not clear if it was because I missed the button, or because the app was slow in responding.

Finally, the worst controls issue for me: the start/stop button on my Apple headphones do not work to control the audiobook playback (instead, it starts/stops the iPod app). This is a killer, because the button on the headphones is the main way I stop playback of a book when I’m ready to go to sleep, or need to talk to someone, etc., because it’s much faster to reach than to unlock the iPhone, find the right screen, and hit the stop button.

Audiobook Playback

The recording quality is fine. There’s no way to tell what the files are encoded as (at least, not without technical digging that’s more trouble than it’s worth for this review). From listening it seems to be roughly equivalent to Audible’s Type 4 format, which is pretty good (I have listened to dozens of books in Type 4 format), but I now prefer Audible’s Enhanced format, which has twice the audio resolution, and sounds noticably better, even to my poor ears.

More seriously, you can only listen to the audiobook while you are in the app. There is no background playback, so you can’t e.g. switch to Bejeweled to play a game or three while listening. If you leave the app, the audiobook stops. Period.

There is no bookmarking capability. The app saves your position in the book when you stop playback or exit the app, just like the iPod app, but otherwise you can’t save locations in the book. There is no way to take notes about the book while you’re listening, and you can’t even exit the app to use the Notepad app. If you need to take notes on the book, it’s back to pencil and paper.

A few more minor notes.

  • The audiobook I tested, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, was $14.99 as an application, and $19.99 as a standard audiobook. The master recording for each is the same, the only difference is the format, app or audio track. Both are a good value (the book is over 21 hours long, less than $1/hour), but the app is $5 cheaper.

  • There is a very limited selection of audiobooks in app format, a dozen or so quality commercial recordings, and a few dozen more which package the less polished LibriVox recordings of books which are in the public domain. Also, audiobook app entries on the iTunes store often neglect to give details about the recording, like if it’s abridged or unabridged, length, who the narrator is, etc. All standard stuff when you look at regular audiobooks.

  • Audiobooks purchased as apps present organization issue. As noted above, they go into the Applications list, not Audiobooks, in the iTunes library. There are fewer viewing options for apps, and a much lower limit on number of apps you can put simultaneously on an iPhone (though practically speaking, the real limit is storage space, not app slots). More seriously, audiobook apps can’t be in smart playlists, which I use extensively to manage which audiobooks are on my iPhone at any given time, and for other organization and management tasks.

  • I experienced a problem where I could not get the app to load; it would crash back to the home screen after a few seconds. Rebooting my iPhone didn’t fix the issue. I had to delete the app, reload it, and redownload the book’s audio to be able to get back to my book. That would suck if I had been on an airplane.


Version reviewed: v1.0

If you are new to audiobooks, these self-contained recordings are a great way to try them out. The self-contained recording is cheaper, and the dedicated audiobook controls make it easier to enjoy your first audiobook, without having to learn the escoteric iPod app controls that you need to know to keep from being frustrated when playing the long tracks of a standard audiobook.

But if you are an experienced audiobook listener, especially if you have been listening to them on your iPod for a while, you will probably find these audiobook apps extremely frustrating. Although the lower price is tempting, you will almost certainly be happier in the long run continuing to buy standard audiobooks. I personally found listening to a novel in this format to be quite frustrating. (But then, I’m an expert on the “right” way to do it.)

Summary of the summary: good for beginners, bad for experts.


  • Simple controls are easier to figure out than built-in iPod app controls for handling long audiobook tracks.
  • Easy access (no need to find the Audiobooks section in the iPod app).
  • Less expensive than standard audiobook.


  • Controls are too small, and sometimes sluggish.
  • No background playback.
  • Requires time and planning ahead to download audio.
  • Cannot use standard iTunes tools to organize a larger collection.
  • Frankly, for true beginners, a real Playaway audiobook is a better bet.

More Information:

Editorial Note

I paid for my own copy of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and I received no compensation for this review. 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.

Steve Christensen January 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I just read through your review. One thing to mention about your comment in the Audiobook Playback section (“More seriously, you can only listen to the audiobook while you are in the app. There is no background playback…”): I believe the only apps that can run in the background are those provided by Apple itself, so it’s not really a valid criticism. I’ve listened to books running on a few player apps and they all have the same issue. If you’ve found a non-Apple app that does, in fact, continue to play while you go off and play a game, I’d be curious to hear.

Alderete January 24, 2010 at 3:06 pm

@Steve: You might be interested in my review of “Bookmark”:/2009/12/bookmark-app-review/, which describes one such non-Apple application. Bookmark is fully capable of playing audiobooks in the background, so you can surf, play “Bejeweled”:/link/bejeweled-app, tweet, or whatever.

AvidReader March 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Is there any way one can transfer the audio of a self-contained audiobook app to a CD to listen to it without an iphone or itunes?

Alderete March 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm

@AvidReader: To my knowledge, no. That’s another limitation of this self-contained format. You don’t have access to the plain audio tracks, and that has many unfortunate consequences. That’s why I only recommend these audiobook apps for people who are brand new to audiobooks, and only as the easiest way to experiment with listening.

AvidReader March 6, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Thank you very much, Mr.Alderete. I enjoy this blog very much.

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