Biochemical Futures

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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12 Responses to Biochemical Futures

  1. James Thomas says:

    The cloud element of this e-book is very intriguing and one step ahead of Kindle but would you consider the monochrome display of a Kindle too much of a disadvantage in terms of the colour plate reproductions?

    • Stephen says:

      Yes, for this type of subject matter I think we have to wait for a colour Kindle to hit the streets before people will invest in textbooks for that platform. Also, given the publisher’s decision to stick with the original pagination (sensible for now), it’s tricky to see how the book would be ported to that type of device, though maybe a super-sized Kindle would be up to the job. I imagine the publishers are looking at this closely.

  2. rpg says:

    546 MB? Given E=mc^2, please calculate the combined mass of the electrons involved.

    Please could you make those Flickr images public? And what’s on page 945?

    • Stephen says:

      Smart-ass. Yes I did wonder about the mass of stored electrons but it was beyond my physics…

      Have ‘released’ the screen-shots into the public domain (and trust that this constitutes ‘fair use’). You should now be able to see page 945 for yourself… it’s a corker! 😉

  3. Brea Plum says:

    Is there any rational reason why these electronic versions of the book are no less expensive than physical books? If the price is the same, then I see no real benefit over renting the physical book. I’ve been more than happy to schlep around rented cinder blocks because it saved me about a hundred dollars per book.

    • Stephen says:

      I don’t quite follow Brea… the electronic version is a bit cheaper (in this case) and, for me, the portability is the key that unlocks access to the contents — it means I can read the book on the go, something that previously was inconceivable. Mind you, I am a bit of a weed. But 3 kilos is 3 kilos…

  4. nico says:

    Nice review!
    This book looks quite good, and I hear that some competition is coming in that department for Wiley (, hope you’ll be able to review that one as well! It is interesting that you can access the book both on your device(s) and through the net, and that your notes synchronize between the two. Tools like Zotero (and Papers/Mendeley?) do that too, and it is very handy, nice to see it coming to books.

    I am not sure about the special software you have to install though, and especially their limiting it to iDevices. Android phones are much cheaper, so guess what are students going to have? Hopefully they are working on that. I still prefer to have fewer apps, and this would be yet another one. I already have to remember whether I saved a book in Kindle or Aldiko, adding a third one is just a pain. Also it seems the text cannot reflow, on awkward/small screens that could be an issue.

  5. Stephen says:

    Cheers Nico – should be happy to have a go at a review of the Nature offering if you can swing a complimentary copy… 😉

  6. Steve Caplan says:


    That happens to be the very same textbook used as a resource for first year graduate students in our department–good to know that a workable e-version is now available.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Wow – I know someone who’s contributed a figure to Voet & Voet?!

    I have officially arrived.

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