A quick look at Voluminous

Voluminous, from developer Wooji Juice, is an interesting piece of software recently released for Mac OS 10.5. It has great things to say for itself:

The Internet is full of free books. But who has time to search for them? Let Voluminous bring the books to you. It finds, downloads and organises a vast library.

As best I can tell, this “vast library” is actually just Project Gutenberg (which is, admittedly, vast). In my opinion, this is a bit dishonest on Wooji Juice’s part (Project Gutenberg already has an easy search function, so the implication that Voluminous is doing loads of work the average citizen couldn’t by scouring a number of sources on the internet for books and consolidating them is suspect). It’s possible Voluminous is accessing more than just Project Gutenberg, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this; and that the help files and website don’t even mention Project Gutenberg smacks of dishonesty to me. I’d be a lot more impressed if the developers were upfront about what Voluminous is doing behind the scenes and played to its strengths: being more user-friendly and (this is a big one) not hideous. As it is, all the verbiage about saving you time is just marketing-speak shooting to take advantage of people who aren’t aware of the amazing resource that Project Gutenberg’s website represents. If all Voluminous is doing is downloading and parsing the GUTINDEX, shame on Wooji Juice.

Since the website was what I saw first, my first impression of the software was negative, but I downloaded it anyway for a closer look. I found that Wooji Juice may love the borderline marketing-speak, but they’ve still done some things extremely well:

Formatting the books. Project Gutenberg is a great project, but the actual book files are nothing you want to be reading because they are plain text and hideous. Voluminous’s greatest strength is that it makes the texts much more attractive. Sure, they aren’t like having a real book in your hands, but at least you don’t feel like clawing your eyes out while you try to read them. I would never consider downloading a book from Project Gutenberg to read (although I’ve used them for other things), but Voluminous helps make Gutenberg texts visually appealing and easier to read.

Attractive interface for searching and browsing. Voluminous has a great browsing interface. I love that while browsing, category headings (or authors, or whatever happens to be there) stick to the top of the screen, making it easy to keep track of what you’re looking at. Browsing by topic and the various searching capabilities are also very pleasant. This is a clear selling point of the software to my mind, because browsing and searching Project Gutenberg is not attractively designed at all (though entirely functional).

So at this point, despite the marketing-speak, Voluminous was looking pretty useful. Unfortunately, I then stumbled onto the program’s cons:

Text zoom is tied to window size. What the hell? I had thought there was no text zoom at all (bad enough), but then I tried to size the window down to get a more humane line length. I grabbed the resize dongle in the lower right corner, but the window wouldn’t move. Confused and alarmed, I dragged outwards, and as the window resized, the text zoomed in. This is a usability nightmare:

  • Not only is it impossible to control line length (which is an important part of making it easy to scan along the lines), but users who need or want a larger font will have to have a correspondingly larger window/monitor.
  • Two things that have no relationship to one another (the size of the window, and the size of the font) are now inextricably linked. Did I resize the window down because I wanted a smaller font? No, I resized it because I wanted to be able to cross-reference the book with a document next to it (or for any number of other reasons).
  • Standard Mac UI conventions are completely ignored. For me, the behavior of windows is sacred ground. I take for granted that I can close, minimize, and resize any window (with occasional minimum restraints on window size). Not being allowed to do so in Voluminous is inordinately frustrating, even if figuring out what is going on is easy. Damn it, I want a shorter line length!

The user has no control over what font is used. Although there are some good fonts in the nine provided themes, the user is given no way to select their own font (or, for that matter, design their own themes that I’m aware of). I ask you: what’s the point in reformatting plain text so nicely if you can’t modify even the font? Being unable to modify line height and so forth just adds insult to injury.

Full screen, of course, is also completely non-configurable and suffers from the same weaknesses as the main window. I was hoping for either a single column in the middle of the screen or, even better, multiple columns with horizontal scrolling a la Tofu.

In the end Voluminous is a great idea marred by the overall inability to configure the program in the one area where it matters (the display of text on screen). Not to mention an overabundance of marketing-speak that shifts focus away from its strengths and towards trivial aspects of the program that are easily available for free. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Voluminous, since I love the idea of a beautiful interface for Project Gutenberg (which might actually encourage me to make use of the resource), but at the moment I don’t think it’s really worth the £15/$30.

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