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Review: Crossway's ESV Bible HD for iPad

This is the second in a series of Bible-related apps for the iPad.

On April 3, the launch day of the iPad, I initially planned to download two separate Bible-related iPad apps. One of these apps was available, but it turned out that the other one had not yet received approval from Apple (and as of this writing, still hasn't). In searching through Apple's app store for anything related to "Bible," I came across Crossway's ESV Bible HD (free from the iTunes Store). This turned out to be a bit of a serendipitous turn of events. Had the second app actually been available, I don't know if I would have found the ESV HD app, let alone downloaded it.

I'll be honest. I've never used the English Standard Version a whole lot. Bible translations are personal, and the ESV and I have never quite bonded. But I will say that  in now what is approaching three weeks of iPad use, I may have now used the ESV more in three weeks than in the last three years combined. In fact, I can easily say that the ESV Bible HD has been my "go to" Bible app on the iPad ever since I've had it.

I really like the ESV HD app. It has both a simplicity and an elegance to it. It's easy to use, but it's also been very nicely done. The biblical text is formatted just as one might expect to see it on the page of a more costly physical Bible with exact paragraphing, subheadings and access to footnotes and cross references. The user can even add his or her own notes to this wonderfully simple, yet well-thought-out Bible app.

The ESV Bible HD app in normal reading modeI mention the above formatting issues because there's another Bible app currently available  for the iPad (which I will eventually review), that doesn't take the care to add in the ESV's subheadings, cross references, and footnotes. Paragraphing is not even that well done on this other app. Considering both apps are free, the Crossway app would certainly be preferable for viewing the ESV translation.

Finding a book of the Bible is as simple as swiping one's finger on this popup table of contentsIn the age of full-featured Bible study programs, why would anyone want an app that focused on only one translation? I can think of a number of reasons. As I mentioned, there's a delightful simplicity to this app which makes it very useful for quickly looking up a passage or using for Bible reading or study.

I meet for a regular 6:30 AM Wednesday morning Bible study, and as I've been trying to evaluate how well an iPad works for this in place of a physical Bible, I've used nothing but this ESV app so far. When I open the app, the biblical text is immediately in front of me. In other words, there aren't a lot of menus or buttons to tap to get to my Bible. I can quickly get to any passage with just a couple of taps. I would imagine that someone, if so inclined, and if done in a non-conspicuous fashion, could even use the ESV Bible HD from the pulpit since the size of the text is easily adjusted.

For the person who prefers the ESV and perhaps isn't interested in all the features of the more complex Bible study apps, the ability to add notes and highlights makes the ESV Bible HD a one-stop shop. And even having said that, the use of this app for primary or secondary use certainly doesn't preclude the use of other programs, too. Many of us wind up using a number of Bible study programs concurrently anyway.

As already mentioned, the interface is both simple and intuitive. Selecting the browse button at the top left of the screen reveals a listing of biblical books with chapters for the current book. This is another touch of elegance as the book titles are displayed in a  large typeface (Helvetica Neue, perhaps?) that initially appears and then slightly glides from a left to right position a couple of millimeters before the user interacts with it. This is a subtle touch that users may or may not even notice, but it's one more example of the attention given to detail in this app. Moving along the list of biblical books requires only an up or down swipe of the finger which causes the list to glide in the manner so characteristic of the iPad or iPhone.

When reading a text, I discovered that touching a verse brought up a dialogue box revealing cross references and textual notes. Clicking on any of these textual notes took me to those passages in context, but I could use the history icon on the top right to go back to my original place.

Tapping on a verse displays cross references, textual notes, the ability to add one's own notes and other options.

 This dialogue box also contains options for writing one's own notes, making this app more than just a tool for reading, but one for actual study and reflection. Verses can be highlighted from here, too. And there are also options for marking a verse as a "favorite" for quick reference later or sending the verse to Twitter or to a friend via email.

A verse that's been highlighted 

The user can send a direct email from a Bible verse.Suggestion: I believe it would be more convenient if one's personal notes showed up in the same dialogue box as the cross references and textual notes. This could be at the bottom of the window to distinguish them from the "official" notes and could incorporate a scroll bar if the note is lengthy.

Second suggestion: I like the way Amazon's Kindle app for the iPad includes a little blue symbol next to any text to which I've added a personal note. Something similar in the ESV text for personal notes would be helpful even though the user can pull up a separate list of these notes.

Viewing a list of personal notes I've added to the app.Third suggestion: there ought to be a way to export one's notes out of the program into something like a basic text file. I say this because opting to add one's personal notes to any Bible program is a significant decision. There ought to therefore be an "out" for all that effort because of the time and work that extensive note taking would require. What if someone uses an iPad for a year, adds a significant amount of notes to the ESV app, and then decides to move to a different tablet device instead of an iPad? Unthinkable, I know (!), but if it were me, I know that I wouldn't want my work simply to be lost.

The search window is very straight forward and results are grouped into pairs for each book of the Bible with the option to expand each list for full results in the selected book. I'm not certain if more complex searches (compound, boolean, etc.) are possible, but phrases can be searched for in addition to individual words.

Search and History popupsThe "More" window brings up options to display lists of highlighted texts as well as notes. Font size can also be adjusted here, but I found that the "medium" setting worked just fine for me. The about screen led included links to the ESV blog, the Crossway website as well as the creators of the app, Subsplash. Each of these pages displays in the About window, but they're difficult to see. I'd recommend to the creators that they simply make these straightforward hyperlinks to launch in the Safari web browser.

One more note about the text layout. I was surprised to see no option for red lettering. Now, if you've read me for any time, you know that I don't like red lettering in my Bible for a number of reasons that I won't go into here. Plus, I don't know if reading lots of red text on a backlit screen might not be a strain on one's eyes. Having said all that, and despite my philosophical objections to red lettering, I do know that some people like it. I believe Crossway could add some simple switch for this in the settings to allow someone to use it as needed.

In addition to using the ESV HD app at my Wednesday morning Bible study, I've also used it to follow my pastor in our church services on Sunday. Even though he preaches from the NLT, I've had no problem following in the ESV (what do you know!). Using the iPad in general has been a pleasant experience because the lights are turned down too low in our services to adequately see a regular print Bible (my complaints against this have gone unheeded). Using the iPad in this context is a great solution because of its backlighting. In fact, I've needed to turn down the brightness to less than the halfway mark and I could still see the ESV Bible HD with no problem or eye strain.

The Crossway ESV Bible HD should find a lot of use on the iPad. I can tell that a lot of thought has been put into this app, and it shows in both how well it looks and how easy it is to use. This will be a must for the person who uses the ESV as a primary Bible translation; but even if you don't, you might find as I have that it's a very handy solution for a variety of uses.

This review was written entirely on the iPad with final editing on my MacBook Pro.