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OverDrive Review: A Free E-Book Lending Service That Requires Some Patience

Why pay for e-books when you can get them from free?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

When you think of public libraries, what comes to mind? Maybe memories of the days you used to go there as a kid, or perhaps images of stacks and stacks of musty old books. Whatever the picture might be, I’m guessing that you don’t see the age-old institution as a resource for e-books.

But you should.

According to the American Library Association, more than 90 percent of U.S. libraries now lend e-books, and this week I’ve been testing a service that allows readers to check out digital books from their local library, right on their device of choice. It’s called OverDrive, and it’s free. All you need is a library card.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

OverDrive provides access to about 16,000 libraries and 10,000 school libraries in the U.S. In addition to e-books, the service also lets you borrow audiobooks and streaming video. Overall, I liked it, and plan to continue using it, since buying books — physical or digital — gets costly. It also offers a broader selection of titles compared to paid e-book subscription services like Oyster and Scribd, and doesn’t limit you to one loan per month like Amazon Prime does for Kindle users.

That said, using OverDrive can sometimes test your patience, not only because there may be a wait to check out a book, but also because the app’s general navigation and performance can be sluggish and unintuitive. The company says it’s working on improving the latter.

OverDrive is available in multiple ways and platforms, and requires that you sign up for an account. You can simply go to the website, or you can download one of the dedicated apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Amazon Kindle, Nook, Mac or Windows. For my tests, I mostly used the iPhone and iPad apps, but I also tested the Web, Android and Kindle versions.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Once installed, the first thing you’ll want to do is add your local library. You can do this by swiping from the left side of the screen or tapping the three bars in the upper left-hand corner and selecting “Add a library” from the full menu of options. You can search by name, city or ZIP code, or browse through a list of libraries. And if you’re a member of more than one regional branch, just repeat the process.

I entered the name of my local branch, and was quickly subscribed to the San Francisco Public Library system. But I had a problem when searching by city. After entering “Oakland, CA” into the search field, I was surprised when OverDrive returned with no results. Instead, I had to use the “Browse for libraries” route and go through several pages and lists before stumbling upon an Oakland branch. Interestingly, this was only a problem on the standalone apps and not the website.

After talking with the company, we figured out that the search-by-city method only works if you enter the city, and not city and state. But even then, that poses a problem, because OverDrive doesn’t return results based on your current location. So when I entered “Berkeley,” it showed me all the libraries with the name Berkeley associated with it, including some in South Carolina, New Jersey and England. An OverDrive spokesperson said he would flag the issue for the product team.

Thankfully, searching for books is easier. You can look up e-books by title, author or ISBN number, if you know it. Alternatively, if you’re just in the mood to browse, you can search by different categories, such as most popular, fiction, nonfiction, mystery or romance. However, I found these pages can be slow to load.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Because the public libraries work with the five big publishers (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster), you’ll find many of today’s popular books and bestsellers available through OverDrive.

Earlier this week, I did a quick search of the current Top 10 New York Times fiction bestsellers, and OverDrive had eight of the titles. By contrast, Oyster and Scribd — two e-book subscription services that allow you to read as many books as you want for around $10 a month but only work with a couple of the big publishers — had none. The same was true of Amazon’s new e-book subscription service, Kindle Unlimited.

But whether or not the books are available for immediate borrowing from OverDrive is another question. Like physical books, there are only a certain number of digital copies available from the public library, so you may have to wait. In the case of the aforementioned New York Times bestsellers, all eight were checked out.

You can place a book a hold, and OverDrive will email you when it’s available. The loan period for e-books is determined by your public library system, and not by OverDrive. At the time of expiration, the book is removed from your account; if it’s available for renewal, OverDrive will give you the option to do so within three days of expiration.

While I’m still waiting to check out some more recent titles like Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” I still found plenty to read, such as Sloane Crosley’s “How Did You Get This Number,” Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.” (I know, I’m woefully behind.)

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

E-books can be downloaded in e-pub format to your phone, tablet or Kindle, or read in your Web browser. (Some titles are not available for Kindle; if they are, they can be downloaded to a Kindle device or to Kindle iOS and Android apps.) The OverDrive app also offers some basic settings, such as the ability to change font size and style, background colors and line spacing. You can highlight text and add notes, but only in browser mode. OverDrive says it’s working to add this feature to other formats in a future update.

OverDrive also allows you to sync your books across multiple devices, but trying to figure out how to do that was a bear. Once you’ve downloaded a book on a device, you’ll find it on your Bookshelf in the main menu. So naturally, I thought that’s where I’d also find it when I switched from my iPhone to my iPad. Not so. Instead, I had to go back to main library page, click on My Account (the person icon), confirm my library card number and PIN, and then re-download the book.

OverDrive is working to make that process more seamless. And once I did have all my books downloaded on each of my devices, OverDrive always remembered my progress, so I could pick up where I left off, whether I was on my iPhone or iPad.

Despite some of the quirks and frustrations, OverDrive offers a one-stop shop for downloading e-books from your public library, and you can’t beat the price.

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