The fourth edition of Voet & Voet’s Biochemistry, which is currently the recommended undergraduate text on our degree program at Imperial College, weighs three thousand and thirty-nine point two four grams. It has one thousand four hundred and eighty-two pages of text and pictures (page 945 is particularly good) divided into thirty-two chapters covering the whole of the core curriculum. The book is in every sense a weighty tome.
Because of the sheer weight of the thing, it has almost never left my office and that has greatly limited the book’s utility to me. Much as it might benefit me to take Voet & Voet’s expansive volume on my commute, I haven’t had the strength. How I have longed for an electronic edition that I could squeeze into one of my glossy mobile devices.
Now my wish has been granted since the publishers (Wiley) have produced a computer-friendly version of the book and kindly provided me with a free copy to road-test*. Ladies and gentlemen, I have arrived in the future.
As befits a modern electronic entity, it is easy to move between machines. I originally downloaded the book (546 MB but no grams) onto my laptop, having already installed the requisite but free Vital Source Bookshelf application (PC or Mac). The purchase also allows you to install versions on your iPad or iPhone, which are arguably better devices for reading.
What is more, you also gain access to an online version of the book, so that you can learn biochemistry even when bereft of the comfort of your regular electronic buddies.
So what is it like, this multi-dimensional reading experience? On the whole I have been very pleasantly surprised. And not just because my nerd bone was tickled by the technology.
The desktop version provides relatively easy access to the book – the table of contents is listed in a column on the left-hand side of the viewing window and is divided into chapters, sections and sub-sections, each of which is a hyperlink to the relevant part of the book.
As for all platforms, the book pagination is identical to the printed version, a sensible decision that will make life easier for lecturers and students, especially while the paper and eBook versions are both in use. The electronic versions therefore also have the same index as the printed book but, somewhat frustratingly, the index entries do not act as hyperlinks. Instead you have to type the page number of the desired entry into a textbox before you can jump to that section. An alternative way to find your way around is to use the fairly responsive search function, though I have yet to discover if it understands Boolean logic.
Helpfully the desktop version also allows you to highlight sections of text and to add notes — a vital function for all students of biochemistry, young and, like this one, old. Cleverly, these are automatically synchronised across all versions of the book. You can also add highlights and annotations using the web-based edition of Biochemistry, but unfortunately this is not possible on either the iPad or iPhone versions. For me this is a serious limitation since these portable platforms are likely to be my primary reading devices. I do hope this deficit will be addressed in future verisons.
Biochemistry on the desktop (click for full-size)
The legibility of the text and images is very good on the desktop version — the pages have the appearance of a high quality PDF (though I am unsure of the precise format). By contrast, the web edition has suffered significant degradation, presumably due the compression applied to reduce the file size. The text is readable on my 13″ laptop screen, but if your eyes struggle with the small font size in the default display, any magnification reveals the pixellation the compressed image. Nonetheless, I imagine this outlet will only receive sporadic use from most readers and it is certainly handy to have network access to the book.
Biochemistry on the web
Happily, although the versions for the iPad and iPhone also betray traces of file compression, the loss in quality is much less noticeable. On the iPad, while the text does not quite have the sharpness of a PDF (as one would see with Papers, for example), it is comfortably readable. The screen resolution on the iPad is just about good enough for the display a whole page to be legible, though the text size is close to the limit of my tolerance. I suspect that the screen resolution of the next generation iPad will fully resolve that issue. In the meantime I will pinch and zoom my way through the text and figures — it’s the modern way.
Biochemistry on the iPad
The reading experience on the smaller iPhone is surprisingly good. That is to say it is surprisingly good so long as you are zoomed in to a single column view, which is no great hardship — just double-tap on the page — and reading from the screen of an iPhone 4. I suspect the lower resolution screen on earlier models would be insufficient.
Biochemistry on the iPhone
The iPad and iPhone versions have lost something of the navigational capabilities of the desktop version since the table of contents is only broken into chapters — sections and sub-sections are not listed. This is an odd and frustrating omission by Wiley since inclusion of these additional stopping points would seem to be a trivial task.
Niggles aside, the primary boon of these electronic versions of this updated classic is that they are truly portable. The weight of the text has been reduced by a very impressive 100% without sacrificing any of the scientific meat. My commute is going to be more biochemical, much to the benefit of my students. And it amuses me no end that I am now living in the future.
*My thanks to Emily Bodger and Sam Crowe at Wiley. The electronic version of Voet & Voet’s Biochemistry retails for £38 (including VAT) – about a fiver cheaper than you can get the hardback from Amazon.