Digital comics store-reader combo LongBox hands-on

After a much longer run as a private beta than originally intended, the digital comic book store and comics reader called LongBox has finally opened its doors. But will readers go digital on their desktops?

After a much longer run as a private beta than originally intended, the digital comic book store and comics reader called LongBox has finally opened its doors. The public beta is available for Windows and Mac, and although it's still quite rough in some spots, it represents a major breakthrough for the print-centric medium.

The default main window of LongBox is a massive comic book information feed. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

When you open LongBox v0.5, you'll see a massive information overload. The layout uses boxes to keep the busy display from getting too chaotic, but the varying shades of blue don't keep things as separate as they could be. Just because this is comics doesn't mean you're going to encounter a lot of primary colors or ziptones here, but some of that old-school feel might have helped here.

In the upper left box, you'll see a horizontal scroll of featured titles. Below that is a newsfeed from the comic book news and reviews Web site Comic Book Resources. The Blackbox is a comic creator spotlight, with the debut focus on Steven Niles, perhaps best known as the writer of 30 Days of Night. It is currently not functioning.

The column on the right is devoted to your LongBox stats on top and a scroll list of comic books being published for the current week. The stats counter wasn't working in the version I tested but should display your purchased comics, comics subscriptions, and comics loaded on your current device. That's a hint at what's to come for LongBox, which anticipates an iPad version, an Android tablet version, Xbox support, and support for other handheld devices. Comics downloaded through LongBox are shared to your account in addition to being stored locally, so you'll be able to read them on any LongBox-supported device without having to download them a second time.

Sitting calmly above all the noise is the LongBox navigation bar. Next to the home button is the Library, where comics you've downloaded reside, followed by the Store, the Reader, and the Options button. Nine comics are currently available for free in the store, including both mainstream works like "Witchblade," comics that have been made into movies like "Wanted," and cult favorites like "Punks."

The default view shows the comics as free-floating covers with the title and issue number above the image and a mouse-over link to the publisher info below it. Mouse over a comic and two options appear. The "i" will open an information box that includes a synopsis, a link to a preview, a wishlist option, and a purchase button. The "+" will add the comic to your shopping cart. There's also a list view, which contains a dedicated preview window and a more text-centric approach.

Accessing the store will require registration, a free process. Because the comics are free for the moment, no credit card information needs to be revealed at this time. Through the Options menu, users can choose to log in when LongBox starts, or to enter their information manually. Here you can switch skins and change your start screen from the main window to the reader, store, shopping cart, or last viewed screen when you start LongBox.

The shopping cart lives on the right edge of the top navigation bar, along with your wishlist, featured LongBox specials, and the Help button which opens a PDF. There's a search bar that anchors the two sets of buttons that becomes a recently read list in Reader mode. It appears to work fine from all screens except the default window.

The LongBox library contains comics you've purchased through LongBox. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblat/CNET)

The Reader mode opens to a blank screen. You can click on the Reader button again to open up the default system file browser, although the Reader does support drag-and-drop for non-LongBox formatted CBR and CBZ comics. In the Library window, however, you'll see an interface that looks like the LongBox Store but with page navigation controls at the bottom. Mouse over a comic and click the icon that appears to open it.

Comics that you haven't read before will open smoothly, but ones in the middle of being read are more sluggish. More often than not I had to mouse over the navigation buttons to get the comic to appear. Several times I had to click on a nav button, or in the black space where the comic should have been, to get it to appear.

In Reader mode, the shopping cart and help buttons are replaced by supplementary navigation buttons. There's a bookmarks button, known to be not working at the time of writing, and a "double" button that opens pages two at a time. This is a well-designed and essential tool for comics, which often use a two-page spread to highlight story moments that call for emphasized action.

There's a Manga button, which can be used for Japanese and Hebrew comics that are published in a right-to-left reading order, and a Zoom button that offers three kinds of viewing. Panel zoom focuses in on the comic at panel width, while page zoom is more of a mid-length zoom, but still bigger than the default viewpoint. Free zoom works like a magnifying glass, large enough so that you can see an entire panel in the frame. The scroll wheel can help you move the page under page zoom, and clicking on the magnifying glass zoom icon will toggle between the most recently selected zoom mode and the default view.

Lastly, there's a currently nonfunctional Audio button. There's a long history of comics and music crossing over, and the CEO of LongBox, Rantz Hoseley, won an Eisner Award for editing an anthology, "Comic Book Tattoo," a collection of comics inspired by Tori Amos' songs. If the button allowed publishers to associate recommended playlists with their comics, this could be a really cool feature, but there's no word as of yet as to what it can do.

The navigation controls at the bottom look smart but still need tweaking. There are controls to move forward or backward by a single page, or flip to the beginning or end of the comic. When you mouse over the controls, a pop-up bar appears previewing the pages of the comic that looks and feels like mini and elongated version of iTunes' Cover View mode. However, the previews are all blank unless you've already viewed a page. This could be a clever way to avoid spoiling the story, or another bug. It's a bit hard to tell at the moment.

This "gray market" CBR-formatted comic book was put together from online previews published by DC Comics. LongBox supports the format, albeit without any metadata. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The Reader mode is really the guts of the program, and a comic read on a 19-inch monitor with occasional juicing from the zoom mode was enjoyable. Nobody really cares about the news features or even the store if you can't read the comic, and on that end LongBox succeeds. However, it's likely that users with significantly smaller or older screens will find it unbearable.

Hoseley has stated that the beta will proceed in three stages. The current public beta, version 0.5.2, is nearly identical to the private beta that I began testing toward the end of 2009. The next stage will introduce redemption codes for nonwatermarked comics. The final stage will introduce full e-commerce functionality to the LongBox store, and add about 100 comics to the store.

Besides the ones mentioned above, there are plenty of known bugs in LongBox. Font usage needs to be standardized, the Comic Book Resources feed requires tweaking, the default window doesn't pull titles from LongBox site correctly, and metadata editing needs work.

The LongBox public beta showcases a massive amount of potential, but unlike the latest Web browser beta from whichever browser publisher is your favorite, this is definitely a rough work and is still very much in progress. It faces massive challenges beyond getting the software to work correctly. Unlike music and MP3s, there's currently no single approved file format for comics. CBRs and CBZ are little more than image archive containers.

There's also the issue of adoption. Except for the rise of graphic novels, comics have been dependent on the direct market niche comic book stores. Will readers flock to digital versions of them? And will those readers jump from stores to digital, or will LongBox bring in new readership?

Overall, though, LongBox represents a good-faith effort to shove the medium out of its print-based nest. It's just too soon to tell whether it can fly.