Murasaki: an EPUB Ebook Reader for Mac Disappoints

| In-Depth Review

Murasaki 1.6.1 for OS X is an EPUB 2/3 ebook reader for the Macintosh. It’s scroll-based rather than paginated and can only view ebooks in non-DRM’d EPUB format. It has some nice features, but the user interface is awkward in some areas.

Murasaki, in English. means the color purple. Moreover, according to the developers, “…the name ‘Murasaki’ is inspired by ‘Murasaki Shikibu’ (aka ‘Lady Murasaki’ in English) who was a Japanese novelist.”

Murasaki icon

Murasaki Icon

This Mac app takes a different approach to viewing ebooks compared to paginated book simulators, like iBooks for iOS. It frees itself from the metaphor of the paper book which usually includes page turning animation and maybe even a swoosh sound. Like Apple’s iBooks on the iPad. Murasaki, instead, has a sidebar that allows you to move from chapter to chapter, and then you scroll through the chapter vertically. Bookle also takes this approach. The developer says, “Murasaki is a scroll-based reader like usual web browser, not a paginate-based reader like iBooks. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is believing the page of books should be flipped.”

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Standard ebook view

Whether you subscribe to that physical book metaphor or not is a matter of taste, but my hunch is that it allows the developer somewhat more latitude when laying out the XML if it gets complex. As such, Murasaki may be more desirable when reading technical books instead of novels, and you may have to set up a custom page view, if possible, in the other popular ebook readers to accommodate special display needs. (To be fair, I did not set up BookReader as a single page view, but it makes the point all the clearer when it comes to paginated vs. scrolled ebook readers.)

For example, with roughly the same size on the display in pixels, here is a technical section from an O’Reilly book (non-DRM’d EPUB2) side by side with BookReader, previously reviewed. As you can see, downward flow with variable width is often preferable for some kinds of content.

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Side by side with BookReader (on left)

This app was released April 3, 2011 in the U.S. App Store and is now at version 1.6.1 Its feature list exceeds that of Bookle, just released, but falls short of BookReader. One thing that struck me is the lack of color. Like Bookle, it presents itself in pale shades of gray. Again, depending on your temperament, this could be good: the app sinks into the background and refuses to be showy.

Murasaki makes no pretense of trying to maintain a library, with a bookshelf or otherwise. The philosophy here is that you maintain your own directory or EPUB documents, and when you’re read to read one, you just open it. Again, the library management or lack thereof is subject to user needs.

Features and Usage

After you open an EPUB document, you can search (but see below), view the organization of the chapters in the sidebar, view the doc’s metadata with the Inspector in the Toolbar, bookmark a page (but see below), open a page in sub-window, open a link in a popover/popup window of user-defined size, and utilize OS X services such as Text to Speech and the dictionary. Because the app is scroll-based, the developer has chosen to put the book cover in the Inspector.

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Appearance prefs

Murasaki was inconsistent in its launch behavior. Sometimes it would remember which doc I was reading before I quit the app, and sometimes it would not. Then I had to manually reopen the document. Occasionally I couldn’t even get a document to open.

Unfortunately, you can only change the font and font size. You cannot change the background or font color. And there’s really no need for page animation or sound, of course, because you scroll instead. I found the documentation for bookmarks inadequate and could not get them to work to my satisfaction due to a lack of visual feedback.

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Fonts prefs

I found the Back/Forward and the Previous/Next butons not so intuitive based on some initial testing. I found out why when the developer explained it via email. “Back/Forward is the history of pages like a usual web browser. Previous/Next refers the page order of EPUBs. It assumes that you read page #1 and jumped to page #3 by clicking hyperlinks or navigation. If you click Back, page #1 is displayed. If you click Previous, page #2 is displayed.”

Murasaki, on first launch, loads plug-ins for Spotlight and Quick Look preview. That way, you can use all of Spotlight’s functionality for searching EPUB metadata (title, author and so on), and you can use the spacebar to Quick Look an EPUB’s cover.

 

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Inspector & Dictionary

I found the Search function to be non-intuitive, actually opaque, compared to BookReader’s elegant search function. I asked the developer, and the response was equally opaque. Search shouldn’t be so non-obvious.

Like Bookle and BookReader, a few of Apple’s Magic Trackpad gestures are recognized: Two finger swipe to scroll and pinch to Zoom the page. Lion’s full-screen mode is utilized.

This app is strong in its handling of mailto: and html external links. You can either open in the default browser with a click or in a popover (iOS terminology) with Option-click. Little Snitch revealed just how tedious that process is, and I had to allow about a dozen connections.

Comparing to Other Apps

Like Bookle, Murasaki only supports the viewing of EPUB files at this point. There is no library management. It’s slightly more advanced than Bookle because it has bookmarks and search, but they’re hard to use. Murasaki doesn’t have all the features of BookReader (see the comparison chart), and there only sparse documentation online. There is no in-app help in this version.

The online documentation links to a brief explanation of User Styles. It looks fairly geeky to me, and I was put off by the complexity and terseness. The documentation falls far, far short of the standard set by Bookle.

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A feature list alone doesn’t drive the final verdict. Bookle has fewer features, but is at the very beginning of its growth path and released just two weeks ago. What it does, it does well. However, if you want, right now, more pizzaz, color, intuitiveness, features and control in a paginated ebook reader, then your tastes may swing to BookReader.

The Finish

On the positive side, I think some customers will find Murasaki a pleasant and simple ebook reader, especially for technical books. For US$4.99, it’s worth having as a backup.

On the negative side, the problems I found, while minor, indicate that the developer, being in Japan, doesn’t appear to be fully plugged-in to the way Mac apps are expected to behave by the average U.S. user — in my opinion. These problems are easy to fix by taking a look at the competition or other highly regarded Mac apps that have won Apple’s design awards.

The bottom line is that, even though the app has some nice features and takes a stand on scrolling, because of the non-intuitive nature of some functions, the inadequate documentation for them, the irregularities in the operation of some functions, I was disappointed. The rating reflects that.

Murasaki, available in the Mac App Store, requires OS X 10.6.0 or later and has been localized to English and Japanese. It was tested with OS X 10.7.3.

Product: Murasaki 1.6.1

Company: Genji App

List Price: US$4.99

Pros:

Well developed features, good for complex layouts, can view metadata, search, bookmarks, handles embedded links, included plug-ins for Spotlight & Quick Look, supports Apple’s Magic Trackpad gestures, text to speech, dictionary access. Inexpensive.

Cons:

User interface issues were noted with loading docs, searching & bookmarking. Supports only EPUB 2/3 formats. Can’t change font color or background color. No library management. Inadequate documentation.

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