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Google Play Books is now a lot better for reading nonfiction titles like textbooks

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By now, you're likely quite familiar with the concept of reading an ebook, whether on a tablet or dedicated e-reader: you load it up with as many books as you can, tap or flip your way through the pages, and maybe highlight a few favorite passages or look up some word definitions along the way. Google believes that's a fine formula for reading a novel, but sorely lacking when reading nonfiction books — think cookbooks, textbooks, or any other book that you don't typically read straight through from cover to cover. If it's not something you read serially, Google's thinking goes, the ebook experience is still sub-optimal.

The company is looking to improve that experience with a new version of its Google Play Books app for Android — Google says its he biggest update the app has received in a long time, but it's all built around one deceptively simple feature. It's called "skim" mode, and you'll be seeing it a lot. When you tap the center of the screen while reading, the page zooms out to allow you to easily slide between pages in the book — in practice, it looks identical to iOS 8's multitasking view, for example. It's also reminiscent of the "scrubber" that is found in many digital magazines, giving you an easy way to slide through the pages of a book.

Google Books Skim Mode

It doesn't sound like a huge change on the surface, but in practice it makes navigating books of any time (fiction or nonfiction) quite a bit easier. Before, you could use the table of contents or your bookmarks to get to a specific place — but once you're on that page, there's no good way to quickly flip through the surrounding pages. A timeline at the bottom always show what page you were on, even as you flip through and preview other pages, so it's easy to get back to where you started. Bookmarks also show up on the bottom page, again making it easy to get to where you need to be. Even the table of contents has been improved — for books that support it, you can get a detailed breakdown of each chapter and jump straight to particular sections. It's not something that will matter to novel-readers, but it makes it a lot easier to find specific recipes in a cookbook or topics in a textbook.

Google Play Books TOC

The demo Google gave me involved someone making multiple recipes within the same cookbook — using the bookmarks on the timeline made swapping back and forth quite simple. That said, switching between bookmarks using the Kindle or iBooks apps isn't exactly difficult, but combining it with skim mode gives you consistent context for where you are in your book. Search also works in skim mode — results are initially displayed in a list, but you can tap one to see the page as well as those surrounding it. From there, you can just scroll left-to-right through the results and easily swipe to the pages surrounding them if you need more details.

While the app will also feature the new Material Design language that Google is pushing out across its apps and Android 5.0 Lollipop, skim view is the big addition here. It's part of Google's lofty pursuit to make reading an ebook better than reading an actual paper book — something the company acknowledges is a huge challenge given the hundreds of years of engineering that has gone into real books. Skim view certainly isn't the nail in the coffin, but it should prove to be a pretty helpful addition to anyone who isn't just reading a novel straight from front to back. The new Google Play Books app should be available to Android users in the coming days, and Google says an updated iOS app will be out soon.

Google Play Books update