Marvel’s New Beta MDCU Reader

I’m really excited about Marvel’s new digital reader, and even more excited about the fact that they are soliciting feedback from their subscribers. It’s one thing to roll out new technology, but it’s another to ask your users what they want to see, what they don’t like, and what could make the digital comics experience that much more awesome. As of this writing it’s unclear, at least to me, whether or not there were specific issues they want to address or if they just wanteded to upgrade a relatively old reading technology. It might be latter, because this new reader doesn’t require flash, and they’re trying to streamline the MDCU for a growing host of mobile devices.

Also keep in mind that we’re talking about a beta and that the issues I’m bringing up here are by no means an indication of the final product!

Picture of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited

Wait, you don’t know what the MDCU is? Ok let me break this down for you. Basically, for a yearly fee, I believe right now it’s around $60, you are granted access to Marvel’s massive digital library. They have thousands upon thousands of awesome comics for you to peruse and read and new books are being added every day. However this service is only available with a dedicated internet connection and you don’t get to keep any of the comics or download them to your machine, but I like to think of it as a very cool magazine subscription.

But hey, we’re here to talk about the beta, so let’s dig right in shall we?

For me, navigation is key in readers. We take it for granted while we’re reading, but there is a very definite, artistic, almost scientific way through which artists guide our eye through a book. Thus readers need to be able to replicate this unconscious movement on digital devices. However, because we are so often reading these books on devices much smaller than the printed stuff we’re used to, problems sometimes arise. So how do we move through the beta?

Essentially you navigate through the comic by either clicking the big arrows that appear on either side of the screen when you over your mouse above a comic page, or you can use the left and right arrows on your keyboard. I personally enjoying using the keyboard because it’s a little less distracting. At this point in the beta, oftentimes when you move your mouse across the screen the navigation toolbars show up, and while they are translucent, they’re still very obvious, which like I said, can be a little distracting.

Showing Toolbars in the MDCU Beta
Not super distracting, but they are there.

The reader starts you out in 2-page view, which is always nice because that’s how you read comics normally, however the up and down arrows, which in the previous reader had been relegated to moving the user into and out of the Smart Panel view, no longer do anything. Now the Smart Panel option is something that you trigger using your mouse. You have to hover your mouse at the bottom right part of the screen click on the opening book icon, and then change the view manually, though I’m sure this will be streamlined in the future.

There are three different views available to readers: 1-page view, 2-page, and Smart Panels and it can be tedious switching between them. In most cases I went from 2-page view to Smart Panels, because text can be a little difficult to read on the big page because of my smaller laptop screen.

Showing Text Cut Off in MDCU
See? Text gets a tad cut off.

As of this writing the Smart Panels aren’t displaying all of the relevant information every time in every panel. I’m going to assume that they’re still working on figuring out the exact dimensions for each comic, but sometimes you can miss out on important aspects of the narrative because they are off-screen.

This wasn’t such an issue in the previous incarnation because you could easily hit the down arrow to move you out to the full size, or you could move the page using the trackpad, which would keep you zoomed in but allow you to navigate the zoomyness.

While we are talking about navigation, one thing that I noticed that’s different is the page-finder at the bottom of the screen. In the reader’s previous incarnation, as the pages loaded you could click below the screen and open the page finder, which had thumbnails of all the pages. If you had to close out of an issue, say your boss was coming by, the page finder’s thumbnails gave users an easy way to get back to the good stuff instead of clicking the right side of the screen or the right arrow a bunch of times.

That’s no longer available, or hasn’t been implemented as of this writing. Now it’s been replaced by a white bar with white boxes that indicated the pages. If you know generally how are you were into the book this is fine and you can slide the red little slider along the pages and stop anywhere, picking up where you left off. Also it should be noted that there’s less delay when moving through the comics this time around, so it’s easier to just click or key your way to where you need to be.

Probably the most glaring omission at this juncture is the fact that you can’t just immediately read the next issue from the comic you’re in. When you reach the end of the book, instead of providing you with a menu of subsequent issues like in the last reader, it just brings up the current issue’s information. Before you could just make with a little clickity click and you went right to the next titillating tale and that was great . I really do hope they include this little bit in the final version of the reader.

Last Panel of MDCU Comic

What’s new though, and something I totally appreciate, is the fact that they’ve integrated social media into the mix. It shows in the menu after clicking through the last panel, which is nice because it doesn’t pester you beforehand. It also allows you to Google+, Facebook, and Twitter – a pretty acceptable assemblage I’d say.

Right now the reader is shaping up to look pretty nice. I don’t know any dates, or when Marvel plans to roll this bad boy out, but I’m excited to see what they come up with. And last but not least, if you’re an MDCU subscriber you should definitely check this thing out. Let Marvel know what you think! They want our feedback!


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