Review: Freda, the eBook Reader
I've always been a big fan of eBooks, no matter the platform, so it's always fun to see what's on offer. It also means I can be incredibly critical of an application in terms of how it presents the contents of a book to me. Thankfully, tweaking the presentation is one of Freda's strengths, but this eBook reader for Windows Phone has a few more advantages.
Version Reviewed: 220.127.116.11
One of the issues that any eBook reader has when running on a Windows Phone is the file system, or at least the lack of a visible one that can be addressed easily by the user. How to get books onto a Windows Phone handset is a rather tricky engineering challenge. But the flip side is that being forced into implementing a system for the users can make for a much better application. Where other platforms' eBook readers can get away with scanning a directory, Windows Phone needs something a little bit classier. Amazon's Kindle reader can tap into the whole Amazon eBook infrastructure, while Nokia have built a full store around Nokia Reading.
Freda has gone down a similar route. The first is to tap into the huge archives of 'free' texts on the Internet through sites like Project Gutenberg, and if you're looking for the classics, then this is the place to start. Freda also starts with some links to books from Project Gutenberg so you can see what's on offer straight away in terms of function.
You can also look through book catalogues such as Feedbooks and Smashwords from inside the app. Smashwords offers the first 20% or so of many books it holds as a sample, and Freda can grab these easily. You'll have a link at the end of the sample to buy the book, which opens up a browser instance inside Freda so you navigate the site, buy your book, and download it to the handset.
Freda talks to a number of book sources, including ePub Books, Smashwords, Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, and the OPDS catalogue. More importantly, at least to me, are the personal options - if you have a Calibre account, Freda will grab texts from there, or you can point it towards online storage such as DropBox and SkyDrive (and everyone with a Windows Phone should have access to SkyDrive).
And right there is one of the huge benefits of Freda - I can read my own texts and books on my device. Pop them in a folder online (in my case on DropBox, but SkyDrive works just as well), hit the live tile-esque button in the panorama view of Freda, and then read away. I like that you can either download the book to the handset or 'stream' it from the source, only downloading the parts that you are about to read. Obviously this is going to be something that helps with handsets that do not have a huge amount of storage - or if you want to sample a book before eating up the space in your smartphone - it works but I'll stick with downloading because I'm old school enough to never trust that I will always be in coverage while travelling.
Freda can cope with ePub files (assuming they have no DRM), FB2, HTML, and TXT formatted eBooks. Older styles, such as DOC and PRC are not supported (although it's a simple matter to extract a text file out of these formats for Freda to use).
On to the core product then, and that's reading text.
This is the point where you discover that Freda can be tweaked within an inch of its digital spine. A quick tap in the centre of the screen will bring up the menu and a number of functions allowing you to search the text, jump to bookmarks, translate portions of the text, or change the text and background colour to something that is easy on your eye.
Or you can open the settings options, which has another four panes of options, allowing you to tweak the colours, the font used, the size of the font, every single control and tap zone... there's a lot going on. You can even go for the 'advanced' option which has another forty five(!) options and settings you can play with to tailor your book reading experience.
I'll be honest here, I'm in two minds about this. It makes Freda into a daunting application for a new user (especially when Amazon Kindle for Windows Phone manages with just three settings for the whole application, namely font size, three colour schemes, and a brightness slider). Windows Phone has an air of simplicity generally, and Freda shoots this out the water - even though the default settings are accessible and work well.
On the other hand, I'm very particular about the presentation of my eBooks, and the ten minutes I spent tweaking Freda to have the right margins, pixel gaps, overhangs, text wrappings, and the rest of those forty five settings, was a worthwhile investment. Freda looks right. I'd still like a way to have left and right swipes turn a page, but I can live with tapping the edges of the page to read the next few words, mostly because I can change everything else.
Freda is an impressive effort. I do have some issues with the speed of the application - it feels slow when moving between sections and opening books, and the spinning dots to signify that the app is working appear all too frequently. But on the other hand when you get to the actual reading part, it's responsive and configurable.
If Freda set out to be an ebook reader for the aficionado, then it's succeeded. It might not have the simplicity of some of the off-the-shelf packages like Kindle, but for anyone who's been building up an eBook collection, or is happy building up their own collection from story archives and online pages cut and pasted into a suitable format, Freda is an almost 'must have' on Windows Phone.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at