I find myself reading a lot of books in audio format these days. Being able to do other things while I read (treadmill, cooking, driving, etc) is nice, and I take full advantage of that. But more and more I find myself really enjoying the performances of the narrators, some of whom appear again and again as I work my way through various series. Publishers are smart enough to retain the same reader for an entire series, and you come to recognize certain characters by the way the narrator pitches their voice, and they clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making the story as interesting as they can.

But not all audio applications are the same. After trying a bunch of different apps, for me it’s come down to two: Audible and Overdrive, both running on my iPhone. I thought it might be fun to write out the pros and cons of these two apps. First, this is the equipment I currently have:

iPhone 6S+
AKG K845BT Headphones (wireless)

The AKGs are an over-the-ear headset that typically retails for around $300, and were a very welcome birthday gift from the wife a couple of years ago. They have wonderful audio fidelity, as one of the first headsets to take advantage of newer Bluetooth tech that allows for greater throughput. They also have a built-in microphone so I can answer the phone if it rings while I’m listening, and if the battery runs down there’s a convenient cable that you can plug in to continue without power. I use these so much that I’ve already had to replace the pads.

(As a side note, Bose just announced the QuietComfort 35, which for another $50 adds active noise cancellation, longer battery life, and a nice carrying case to the mix, addressing some of the few shortcomings of the K845. Worth a look.)

So let’s take a look at the two audiobook apps. First is Overdrive, which is used in conjunction with your local public library. It’s free, but more importantly, since you’re withdrawing them from the library, all the books are also free. Not surprisingly, this is the main appeal.

But it’s important to note that if the app is no good, that can actually lead to a very bad audio experience. And Overdrive has had a LOT of problems over the years. Bugs have included problems related to Bluetooth connects/disconnects, integration problems with iOS and Android, and just plain random crashes.

The good news here is that Overdrive Inc has done a good job cranking out the updates and trying to remain competitive as an independent fighting the Amazon behemoth that owns Audible. Currently Overdrive is pretty stable, and the only bug that I’m currently dealing with is that it sometimes repeats a chapter if I use the locked screen controls to pause/restart during playback. That’s both a little worse and a little better than it sounds – a little worse because file chapters don’t match book chapters, so you have to remember that this can happen and manually click the file-forward button when it does. And a little better than it sounds because once you get used to it it’s an easy problem to deal with.

My other complaint about Overdrive appears to be by design, which is that it doesn’t show your overall progress as you go through a title. It seems to be file-based, and while it does display the cover of the book on the screen, I think its logical movement through a book is simply determined by the order of files in a folder on the device. So it really has no idea what my overall progress is – it only knows how far I’ve gone through a given file.

That’s a shame, because it has an impact on overall planning. The only way to know that I’m near the end of a book is by looking at the chapter listing. It does helpfully display the times of each chapter on that screen, but these timings often appear to be inaccurate or just plain incorrect.

On the plus side, Overdrive nicely integrates both audio and ebook functions. When you check out an ebook from the library you read it in the same Overdrive app. However, unlike with Amazon, there’s no sync between ebook and audiobook versions of the same title. Since these involve separate library checkouts that’s not too surprising, but it would be great if they could figure out a way to do that.

In the end, the main appeal of Overdrive is in the free nature of the books you read on it. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a moment to review the library process. This involves getting a library card (something you can do over the Internet), which provides you with a very weak, single-factor authentication system – your library card number. No password. Yeaaaah, okay. It’s not as if you’re entering your credit card info into the system, but that’s a little surprising for the 21st century. (Some of the details of this may vary from library system to library system. Check your local library for details.)

My library lets users check out up to ten audio or ebook titles at a time, for up to three weeks at a time, which is pretty convenient. There’s also a renewal feature if that’s not enough time, so that’s a lot of flexibility. You can also place up to ten “holds”, which let you reserve a book that’s currently not available.

Which brings up the biggest disadvantage of this system – the inventory. This is obviously a compromise with the publishing industry, and an understandable one. Since everything is online, if the electronic inventory were infinite everyone would just get their books this way and nobody would ever buy anything. Typically, even popular titles are limited to 2-3 copies. The most I’ve ever seen is 5. And my library serves almost two million people.

That’s quite a bottleneck, and as you might expect it can be a real drawback. It’s good that you can place up to ten holds in the system, because you may indeed have to wait several weeks for a popular title. The system notifies you via email when it’s ready, and also shows you how many people are “in line” ahead of you. But dealing with the “inventory problem” is probably the biggest disadvantage of the Overdrive/library system.

Also, many titles aren’t available. Independently-published works are much less likely to be there, and the less popular titles are less likely to be present as well. As a practical matter, I end up checking the library first to see if a title is available, and if it is I’ll get it there, and if not I’ll pick it up on Audible. This approach still saves me a lot of money, while not forcing me to wait to read a book that I’m excited about right now.

One final disadvantage of Overdrive is the complexity of the transfer process. It’s awkward. Really awkward. So much so that I’m convinced they lose a lot of users over it. You have to navigate to a certain Web page from within Overdrive, log in with credentials that it seems incapable of remembering (thankfully there’s just the card number to remember, right?), then go to a different page to download the file. None of this is clearly marked, instructions can be a challenge to find, and it varies from library system to library system. What a mess!

But once you work through it a couple of times, you get used to it and it’s easy enough to deal with. And as I say, it’s really hard to argue with free. When the system works well – when the book is available, when you know how to do the download – then everything’s great.

On the whole I give the system a B-. Now let’s take a look at Audible.

Amazon didn’t create Audible, it bought it for $300 million back in 2008. Amazon modernized its subscription model and greatly simplified the way the system works, with changes ranging from account management to the mechanics of playback. It shows – the system is an absolute dream to use, especially compared with Overdrive.

Convenient wish lists, reading progress synchronization between Kindle ebooks and Audible audiobooks, and flawless smartphone apps highlight the advantages of the system. It’s easy to use. It’s fast. It’s just… right. There’s nothing to really pick at here – it just works.

But you pay for that. The subscription model and subsequent purchase of additional credits works out to a per-book cost of about $12, regardless of length. Watching for sales and special offers helps to mitigate the harm of having to pay the same price for a 5-hour short story that you would pay for a 40-hour, 1000-page fantasy title, but you do have to pay attention to that when you’re browsing (yup, I’ve messed that one up).

Mistakes like that are easily remedied, of course. Audible has a “no questions asked” return policy. Just didn’t like the book? No problem. Returns are just two clicks away and instantly put a credit back in your account. That’s some serious customer service.
As for the application itself, it hasn’t been entirely bug-free, of course. What smartphone app that sees this much use hasn’t had its bumps along the road? A year ago there were serious issues with Bluetooth devices – disconnect the headphones and you’d lose your progress in a book! But they’ve really been aggressive about bug fixes, and it shows. At the moment – the current version as I write this – has no known bugs. I’ve never been able to say that about Overdrive. Not once. That says a lot.

In addition to the cost issue, some folks have a problem with digital rights management, which I can understand. You can’t listen to the files on another reader. But as with Kindle ebooks if you cancel your account you still keep your purchased books and the app still plays them. And of course canceling your Audible subscription has no impact on your Kindle ebooks, so this feels like a pretty good compromise to me.

The app is so advanced compared with Overdrive that it even supports streaming instead of downloading your purchased titles (though why you’d want to do that is unclear to me). And it will let you start playing a title right after the download begins, so you don’t have to wait for the entire download to complete. Nice.

On the whole, I give the Audible system an A+.

With all those advantages you might wonder why I still use Overdrive and the library. A little math helps to clarify this. I typically read about 80 books per year, which is almost a thousand dollars at Audible. Using Overdrive part time probably saved me close to $500 last year. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

That also reveals the ratio I end up with, which is something like 45-50% Overdrive, 50-55% Audible. It just depends on what the library has available when I’m ready to read a book. I could push that percentage further in Overdrive’s favor by better leveraging those library holds, but what I save in cash I lose in the lesser convenience and higher general stress level. It’s really hard to resist pushing that Audible checkout button sometimes and will myself to go and check the library. I mean, it’s just another credit, right?

Final tally:
Overdrive: B-
Audible: A+