Recently I got a notification from O'Reilly on a 50% off sale on SafariBooksOnline.com (Safari Books Online). I haven't really paid any attention to them in years, but now that they supported iPad/Android apps it seemed interesting. And given how much I spend on tech book and courses every year, US$199 seemed about right, so I signed up.
The book selection seems great to me. There are technical books and courses on pretty much every subject relevant to me, plus whole conferences – which can each cost about a year of the site would.
One of the biggest advantages of the service is quickly making a search for a topic you need now and getting good, detailed references you can see now, inside any book or video. No more buying a book that supposedly covers what you need just to find out it is just a vague chapter in the middle of it!
Accessing via the Web is the best for books. Highlights are easy, can private or public and include notes. Now, for videos I really miss having speed selection – which is very, very common these days. I still haven't seem a single video of them with closed captions yet.
One thing I really miss is reviews for books and courses. Even if they are included in the price, the time I spend on them is not free. So if I want to I need to go elsewhere to learn if my time is well spent with this book/video.
I have used the iPad app quite a bit, as it is much more comfortable than sitting at the computer. The app works well overall, looks good, is very responsive and allows downloading of books and videos. I read complaints of problems with some books, but I haven't noticed anything yet. Going back from a link on a book can be a little jarring as it speeds up from the start of the chapter to where you were when clicking the link, but that is not too bad.
You can highlight passages (which I do a lot in preparation for later doing notes – which is strongly recommended on learning research). You can't add notes, though.
I had a problem with highlights disappearing – which might be related to using the Android app on the same book or not, I don't know. Either way, very annoying.
They have a nice chat built-in in the app. I have reported the highlights problem yesterday, but no response yet – should be expected as it is the weekend. I'll update this later if I get an answer.
Video is OK but has the same problem as the web version – you can't speed up/slow down video and no closed captions.
Update (30/Dec/2015): I have contacted support many times. Most times, I don't even get an answer. The iPad app is still pretty buggy. About 5 times it deleted all the books I've downloaded, including in the latest iOS update. This time one of the largest books just lost all my highlights, and won't re-sync them again. Luckily the highlights can still be accessed from the web version.
One of their most annoying bugs – highlights sometimes highlighted the WHOLE CHAPTER – seems to have been fixed.
I have only tested the Android app briefly for a simple reason – it doesn't even have highlights! This makes it mostly unusable to me.
Update (May/2016): They have added highlights to Android! I'm a little impressed that I updated my review on Google Play to mention the highlights and complain about the lack of feedback when loading the highlights (5 minutes for a large book I'm halfway through), and they answered a few minutes later.
There is a new section on the site with tutorials. So far what I have seen is just links to videos and sections of books that you already have access to. I think it is a nice idea on getting better use of the collection by curated topics. Apparently, this will cost US$15 per month or US$35 per course – in addition to the normal price.
This price might be reasonable or not, depending on where they go with it. They have a survey which include options such as exercises and assessments, which might make it reasonable, specially if they do something like Pluralsight with PDF certificates you can get after each tutorial.
Update (May/2016): I think they gave up on charging for the tutorials – which is a big win for all their users.
For those in the go, some way to deal with being off-line and having access to the content would certainly be nice. But this still has only “Coming Soon” on their site.
Overall I like Safari Books Online, but mostly at the discounted price I got. At full price it is reasonable only if you really view conferences or video classes, otherwise it is much cheaper to just get the books. The apps could certainly be better, but I understand this new version of the service is relatively new, so I hope they improve with time.
Update (May/2016) – The apps have improved with time and are much better now.
Update (November/2017) – It is interesting to note that for the first time, a book I read was removed. I wouldn't mind so much, but I was still going through the highlights I made to make my notes. Thankfully, although it disappeared online I still had a downloaded copy on my tablet.
Something to keep in mind for those that add notes and highlights to books. You might want to keep your notes somewhere else.
The apps are better. In particular, selecting on Android is much better. There are still times when it doesn't download all the highlights, though.
11 replies on “Safari Books Online – Review”
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