Hands-On with Microsoft’s New Books Experience

Posted on January 19, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Music + Videos, Windows 10 with 57 Comments

Hands-On with Microsoft's New Books Experience

Microsoft is adding a new e-book store and reading experience to Windows 10 with the Creators Update. Here’s a quick peek at how this will work.

Microsoft’s e-book experiences were outed earlier this week, though I expressed my concerns about trusting Microsoft as a content provider, especially since the content is locked to Windows 10. But this is a major new initiative and it deserves a look.

Which is now possible if you’re a Windows Insider on the Fast ring and live in the United States, thanks to the release of Windows 10 Insider Preview build 15014. (Presumably, these experiences will be available to a broader audience when the Creators Update ships in March/April. But given Microsoft’s history, those outside the U.S. are right to worry, I think.)

In any event, the e-book experience in Windows 10 will be comprised of three major pieces: A new Books area in Windows Store, and library and reading interfaces in Microsoft Edge. (Why Microsoft hasn’t created its own standalone e-book reader app is unclear.)

Books in the store

Thanks to a new Books area in the Windows Store app–which sits alongside previous areas like Apps, Games, Music, and Movies & TV—you can now browse for e-books too.

The Books area looks and works like the other top-level areas in the Store, and provides collections such as Top Books, New Books, and the like. There are category areas as well.

It’s not clear yet how Microsoft’s e-book store compares to, say, Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, or Google Play Books, but I checked it against my previous several purchases on Kindle and only some were available from Microsoft too. This includes traditional text-based books, plus some graphic novels, though those in The Walking Dead series were among the missing. My gut feeling is that Kindle is by far the richest and biggest e-book platform and will remain so forever, effectively. But we’ll see how Microsoft grows its own store.

What’s not available here, however, are periodicals—newspapers and magazines—or the ability to subscribe to such things, and could limit the appeal of this store.

The purchase experience works exactly as it does for apps and other content, as it should. This is one aspect of Windows Store that Microsoft has gotten right.

Books library in Microsoft Edge

Your e-book library is available via the Hubs experience in Microsoft Edge, which is accessed via a button in that browser’s toolbar, next to the Address Bar. Today, in Windows 10, Edge’s Hubs UI provides access to your Favorites, Reading list, History, and Downloads. But with the Creators Update, there is a new entry for Books, which sits right in the middle of those four other buttons.

The Books hub works as expected, listing the e-books you’ve purchased from Microsoft’s Books store in a nice graphical layout that shows off each book’s cover design. Obviously, you just select a book to begin reading it.

Oddly, you can’t also add any unprotected E-PUB documents or PDF files to your library, and then sync them to the cloud, making them accessible on other Windows 10 devices. That seems like an obvious feature.

Reading experience in Microsoft Edge

With the Creators Update, Microsoft Edge is, ahem, edging further from its traditional role as a web browser and into a new role as a digital reading hub. The Reading list feature was the first hint at this new direction, as it brought functionality into the browser that, in Windows 8, was served by a separate app. The additional of e-book support is, of course, another big step.

The issue with both Reading list and Edge’s e-book support is that they are exclusive to Windows 10, which is itself only popular on PCs. This just isn’t how or where most people want to read and until/unless all of this functionality is available on popular mobile platforms, it’s not clear how successful it can be.

My criticisms aside, Microsoft really has nailed the reading experience in Microsoft Edge, which neatly demonstrates how good text can look on modern, high-DPI screens. (This is true on the web and with Reading list as well, of course.)

All the expected customization is there, from fonts and text spacing and sizes to themes. You can navigate through a book using its table of contents or a Groove-like scrubber at the bottom. (It works much like other e-reader experiences, in other words.)

Is it weird reading e-books in a web browser? A little bit, but then I’ve always found Edge to work well with PDFs. There are bigger issues, as noted: The lack of compatibility with popular mobile platforms, of course, and the lack of support for periodical support.

But why stop at e-books? With Audible dropping its exclusivity arrangement with Apple iBooks today, I’m wondering now if Microsoft will be adding audiobook support to Windows 10 and the Windows Store next.

Maybe that can be a feature for Redstone 3.

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