Sugoi Books Android App: Not Ready For Prime Time

By Brigid Alverson

Sugoi is Japanese for "awesome," but the Sugoi Books Android app is anything but.

It's one thing to be a little rough around the edges. Manga readers expect that, even like it, because it reminds us that manga is imported and therefore exotic. Sugoi is a product of the Japanese online services provider NEC Biglobe, and while the manga is in English, the app is still noticeably Japanese.

Unfortunately, it's also noticeably buggy.

Sugoi Books supposedly offers over 100 manga titles, all translated into English, including classics like Shirow Masamune's Appleseed and Kazuo Umezu's Cat-Eyed Girl, an array of lesser-known but interesting-sounding titles such as This is Osaka City Editor's Desk, I Am Little Pudding, and Shoes Reflected in a Puddle, and a large selection of Harlequin manga and manga adaptations of Western classics such as Moby-Dick.

At least, that's what the press release says. Finding the manga, let alone buying them, is a bit of a problem.

The app opens up to a storefront, like most comics apps, with a list of four "new arrival" manga: Appleseed; Cowboys, Babies, and Shotgun Vows; Hell of the Girl; and Ten Night of Dream. You really don't have to go any further than these titles to know what the quality of the translations will be.

And, in fact, you can't go any further than these titles, or at least, not much further. There are also a few icons on the store for other books; the one for Cucumber Sandwich gave me an error message, but some of the others opened up. Altogether, you have options to look at 12 manga from that front page. Where are the other 88? If you already know the title, you can use the search function to find the book, but there doesn't seem to be any way to simply browse the available titles. There is a "Ranking" button that shows you the top 20 titles.

I downloaded the free samples of Appleseed and Hell of the Girl to see how the reading software worked. The downloads are slow, and when the download finishes you have to watch a second status bar, "Contents are developed."

What's worse, once the chapter is downloaded, it doesn't seem to stay on the device. I think it's supposed to, because there is a "My Book" button, but the free chapters I downloaded never showed up on that page, and once I navigated away, I had to re-download them. Slowly.

The manga reader is actually pretty good, with decent resolution so you can read the page pretty well even if it is sized to fit the small acreen. You have to remember to swipe from left to right or tap the left side of the screen to turn the pages, because this is unflipped manga so it reads from right to left. If you swipe, the page turn is animated to look like a paper page, but the tap gives you a nice, clean sliding transition. A double-tap enlarges the page, a second double-tap enlarges it again, and a third double-tap shrinks it back to normal size. Once the image is enlarged, you can move your finger around to view different parts of the page, and if you turn the page while it is enlarged, the next page will be enlarged as well.

In order to buy manga via the app, you must register with something called Andronavi. The registration process was annoying, frustrating, and intrusive, but that's not really NEC Biglobe's fault, it's Andronavi's. What is NEC Biglobe's fault is the terrible pricing system.

This is one of those annoying apps where they don't simply put a price on the books; they make you buy "tickets" and redeem them. I understand that exchange rates make this necessary, but it's a complete racket for two reasons: The tickets expire after 180 days, and the bundles of tickets for sale don't match up with the cost of the books.

To make this clear: Tickets are available in batches of 100, 500, 1050, and 2200. The first chapter of Appleseed costs 550 tickets, so in order to buy it, I have to buy 1050 tickets, far more than I need, yet not enough to buy two chapters. And if I don't use those tickets in 180 days, remember, they expire. The tickets are priced in Japanese yen, with approximate equivalents in dollars. 100 tickets costs about $1.30, while 2200 tickets costs about $26, so there is a slight price reduction for buying tickets in quantity.

What's more, the manga is rather expensive. Two chapters of Appleseed costs about $14.30, or 65 cents less than the list price of a full volume (and only chumps pay full retail price).

At this point, I was so disgusted that I didn't even bother to try to buy tickets. I did take a look at as many of the manga as I could, though, to see how many chapters were available for each one. This is key—there's no point in buying chapter 1 if chapter 2 isn't available. And indeed, for most of the books I checked, only one chapter was available. I got tired of checking the pretty quickly, though, because even the catalog listings load slow on this app. I spent more time looking at the "Now loading" window than any other part of it.

It's unfortunate that this app is so terrible. The developers have the right idea, and manga readers will take authenticity over smoothness any day. This is a group, remember, who started out reading amateur translations that they found via Internet Relay Chat. But Sugoi Books is too slow, too buggy, and too light on content to be worth the trouble.

The Android system is notoriously difficult to design apps for, because there are so many versions, but the HTC Incredible is a pretty standard phone. Still, some people have managed—the pirates.

Just out of curiousity, I searched the Android Market for manga apps and downloaded one that had a high rating but that I knew (because they said so right in the description) drew its content from bootleg manga sites. It was fast, it had a browsable list of titles, and it even supported pinch zoom (which Sugoi Books does not). And all the manga were free. So there's no reason why you can't have a good manga reader on the Android system; unfortunately, Sugoi Books isn't it.

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