Years ago, when the ebook thing started taking off, my first thought was that ebooks could be very useful while traveling. Instead of lugging along several guidebooks, not to mention dictionaries and phrase books, all I’d need is an ebook reader.
It didn’t work out that way, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Thanks to a recent update to the Google Play Books Android app, maybe it now will.
Google Play Books, a competitor to Amazon’s popular Kindle ebook store, introduced a new “skim” feature. You just tap a page in a book to view a large thumbnail of that page, then swipe left or right to “skim” past thumbnails of other pages. You can swipe through pages as quickly as you like.
The skim feature is amazingly helpful, particularly with nonfiction books such as travel guides, cookbooks and photography books — anything you’d want to skim again after reading it or instead of reading page by page.
Each page you bookmark gets a bookmark icon on the bottom of the skim screen. By tapping those icons, you can easily jump from one bookmarked page to another.
Revolutionary? Not really. Google Play Books’ new skim feature is, however, a big improvement over how you flip through pages using a Kindle or in the Kindle apps.
On a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, for instance, tapping a page brings up a slider bar at the bottom of the screen. By moving the slider bar button left to right, you can speedily change your location in the book. You don’t get thumbnails of the pages as they whoosh by. So you don’t really know what you’re zipping past or where you’re going to land.
You can tap the “Notes” and “Bookmarks” icons to see what you’ve highlighted or bookmarked. Notes and bookmarks are presented in a scrollable list, and if you have a lot of them, it’s a bit tedious to find what you’re looking for.
Of course, Kindle devices and apps have a search feature. In my experience, search isn’t helpful when you’re reading, say, a travel guidebook. Let’s say you’re visiting Paris and want to find the guidebook’s main entry on the Louvre. You type “Louvre” into the search field and get a million search results to scroll through, which makes it difficult to find the result you want. It’s time-consuming and frustrating, which is why I still carry paper guidebooks on many trips instead of a Kindle. Google Play Books’ skim feature could change that.
As of this writing, Google Play Books’ latest improvements haven’t made it to the iOS app. They’re still rolling out to Android devices, as well. I had to go and manually download the update from AndroidPolice’s APKMirror website. There are some things I like better about Kindle devices and apps. Highlighting a passage, for instance, is easier on a Kindle than in the Google Play Books Android app.
Even so, if you read nonfiction books on an Android, Google Play Books’ update is good news.
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.