A Uniquely Biased Review of JManga.com on Laptop and Tablet

March 21st, 2012

Disclaimer: As many of you know, ALC Publishing has been collaborating with JManga to provide localization for some of their manga. Therefore, it would be the height of absurdity for me to tell you that this is an unbiased review. I am human, and there will be bias. Duh. However, I am not approaching this review in the sense of “We’re great, everyone else sucks”, because aside from it not being true, that too would be absurd. So, I’ll do my best to be consistent, coherent and to make my biases as transparent as possible, so you know where I’m coming from.

In addition, I am not spending a single moment pointing out typos, “misspellings” (if that can indeed even be considered to be a thing in a transliteration) or choices in translation that would not be the choices I myself would make. Those are the kinds of things people do when they have no creative energy themselves and instead prefer to feel important about something by poking pedantic holes in a thing. For the sake of today’s discussion, let’s assume that every volume probably has a typo or two (and in a few days I will tell you *why.* It’s a completely different topic.) I will comment on lettering and font only to discuss issues with the legibility of a page and anything that impacts the reading experience in a way that takes one out of the moment. I’ll grade them A-F, Where A+ is outstanding and F is Fail, because I think numbers aren’t really applicable here.

Lastly, in the interest of complete transparency, I received a number of credits from JManga to supplement my subscription, not so that I would do this review, (in fact, they have no idea I’ve written it yet,) but because they are very nice people. Nonetheless, I pay for my own subscription plan out of my own pocket.

Having said all that, let’s begin. I will not discuss the registration process. It’s as straightforward as can be and there is nothing unusual or complex about it, if you have ever registered for anything, anywhere online.

Subscription

Negatives: I have previously mentioned that I am uncomfortable with the “subscription” model of JManga. In a nutshell, the “subscription” one buys is not a subscription. On Crunchyroll, one pays a monthly fee for all-you-can-watch access. That is a subscription. On JManga, one pays a monthly fee and receives that much in credits, their site currency, which one then cashes in for titles. This is akin to going to an arcade, putting $10.00 in the machine and getting $10 worth of tokens, which you can then only spend in that arcade. The subscription itself provides no value. The value of those tokens is the entertainment you can buy with them.

Positives: JManga has recently run a number of very interesting sales and promotions, and is constantly running additional sales on the price of the volumes of manga. So, during one of the recent promotions, they doubled the amount of credits you initially received with your $10 or $25. If you were to pay $10, you received 2000 credits and much of the manga was discounted to 499 credits. So, for that $10, you could “purchase” up to 4 manga. Basic math tells you that that is a great deal.

A big positive is that a subscription to JManga is not a commitment to JManga. According to their FAQ, you can downgrade your subscription at any time and still retain access to anything you have previously purchased. So you can buy your manga on sale, then downgrade back to free, until you have a few more bucks in the bank. I honestly like this. It makes the “subscription” model more tolerable than a commitment to a monthly purchase that I may or may not want to make. I buy my manga in bulk. With the variability of manga series’ lengths, and the lack of consistent timing on new material (by which I mean “new material I want”) being added to the site, there’s no guarantee that I’d spend that $10 every month….and while credits are rolled over from one month to the next, there is a sincerely held concern that there might be a time limit for rolled over credits or, let’s be real here, the longevity of Jmanga itself.

I will review the series I read on Story, Overall Presentation and Overall Translation, and at the end, discuss the viewing experience on two different tech systems, a laptop and a tablet.

I purchased a number of titles, both Yuri and non-Yuri, to get an overall feel of the quality of translation. A number of people have commented on the not-entirely-fluent feel of several series, but I find that more often than not, translations were perfectly fine. There’s a panel, or a page, here and there, were English grammar isn’t perfectly tight, but, like typos, there’s a reason for that, and I’ll cover it under a different essay.

First up, Ekiben Hitoritabi: I picked this manga first, because I had never read it, had no expectations and no a priori opinion.

Story: Both incredibly interesting…and sort of dull at the same time. ^_^ Food, train, view, food, train, view. I like all three and there is no doubt that if I had read this in Japanese, I would have missed most of the story. So it was really nice, but the density of detail was overwhelming at times.

Overall Presentation: Not all that good, actually. I frequently had to expand the page size to see side comments and notes. I don’t know for sure, but it appears that this was scanned in at a low DPI, which meant I frequently needed to zoom. I’ll get back to the zoom later in the tech section. There was a serious issue with the retouch. Digitally “whiting out” text is quite easy, because you just set the brush to the color of the background and whiteout the previous text. This manga has thick gray lines behind the text, where it looked as if someone actually used whiteout and scanned it in, but it’s probably more likely that the color of the brush was just off from the background color.

Overall Translation: Generally quite good. If there were places that didn’t seem perfect, my brain has washed them away and I’m left remembering a pleasant journey with two pleasant people.

Score: B

From there, I went to the Yuri page and downloaded all the Yuri they had. Obviously, these were of interest to me.

YNN Correspondent Chriz P, who is from the UK, has been keeping me abreast on what UK fans can access and not. According to Chriz, GIRL FRIENDS is now accessible in the UK. (I’m particularly vocal when the UK is left out – I have many friends there and of course they read English, so there is just no excuse for them to be embargoed.)

Story: I’ll keep it short here. Sweet, tortured, a little sexy, sometimes service-y, GIRL FRIENDS tells the story about two girls who fall in love.

Overall Presentation: Excellent. I don’t recall ever having to expand the picture to read the notes, except for once and the note was genuinely tiny. No weird whiteout marks (I was concerned that I’d run into that again, but I have not.) The lettering was easy to read overall.

Overall Translation: A little stiff in places, but acceptable. There’s a very unfortunate glitch in the language on the first page, and from time to time, there’s a spot that’s just not smooth or natural, but I wasn’t pulling my hair out or anything.

Score: B+

Third up, Love My Life. I had some serious trepidation about reading this, because I feared that the translator didn’t love it as we do and that might be reflected in the translation.

Story: Two girls in love, one learns her parents were gay/lesbian. She meets her late mother’s lover, her father’s current lover, deals with friends, school, her own love life and lives happily ever after.

Overall presentation: Solid. There were a few quirks/mistakes, but nothing made me cringe and die or anything. This one needed a little post-lettering editing. I loved the fonts they chose for this book.

Overall Translation: Same as above. There were a few moments when I thought, “that was awkward,” but I started reading it out loud and, y’know, it really wasn’t. What was awkward was just seeing it on the page. From time to time there was a genuinely awkward set of lines, see above about post-lettering editing.

Score: B+

Madame Joker was the greatest choice on JManga ever. I cannot express to you how wonderfully quirky this book was!

Story: Widow Ranko is a woman who lives by no one else’s expectations. She has two children, and a lover, and and in her spare time, she solves murder mysteries. From Jour magazine, (and clearly I need more Jour in my life!) the art style is old school, and the story has a pretty classic feel about it too. Sort of Victorian SCA meets “Murder, She Wrote.” No Yuri in this, that I know of, but I know some Yuri has run in Jour recently.

Overall Presentation: Pretty great. But to be fair, I’m utterly besotted by the art style and may be missing whopping big problems.

Overall Translation: The language is stilted and odd and I sincerely think that that’s partially that slight awkwardness of the translation and partially the fact that the two kids were raised by the Victorian SCA and so their Keigo is odd.

Score: A THIS was worth my $10, right there.

I had enjoyed Morita-san ha Mukuchi well enough when I read it in Japanese. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I was blown away.

Story: Morita Mayu doesn’t say much, but that doesn’t mean she’s not all in there. Mayu is popular and friendly, she’s just quieter than most people.

Overall Presentation: Perfectly fine. Better than fine, really, because of all the series these were the sharpest looking pages I read. Lettering was really nice.

Overall Translation: I randomly opened a chapter here and three pages in I snorted as I laughed out loud. Done deal. This was funnier in English than in Japanese, because I was missing less and the language was clear of awkward phrasing.

Score: A

Finally, I reached for Poor Poor Lips. Not to be critical, but to make sure it worked, since that was our first translation for JManga.

Story: Nako is very, very, very poor. She gets a job in a gem shop, but finds out the shop owner is a lesbian. Ren says Nako’s not her type, but….

Overall presentation: Oddly of all my choices this was the one I had the hardest time reading. I was not in love with the lettering, but once I switched to tablet over laptop, it was peachy.

Overall translation: I’m so proud of how this came out. Nothing awkward, great smooth language. Erin does spectacular work.

Score: Well, A, duh, I did say this would be a biased review. ^_^

I have one serious complaint: ALC specifically requested to have credits on the work, and those were not included. I’m a tad vexed about that, but it’s true sitewide. People who do work should be properly credited. I feel this way about all work, in every industry. Every single person who worked on Photoshop gets their name in the product – every translator, editor and letterer should have their name on JManga.

Update April 2012: Translator and editor are now credited. I still think everyone, retouch and letterer and anyone, who worked on it should be credited.

Notebook vs Tablet

For the purposes of this review, I am using a Dell Inspiron, 15″ screen with 1366 x 768 resolution (now that I notice that…what a weird resolution…), running Windows 7 and a Samsung Galaxy 10.1″ tablet with 1280 x 800 resolution,  running Android 4.0 Icecream Sandwich.  Obviously, with Windows 7 and Android, there was no issue at all about the Flash reader. (Another jab at the late Mr. Jobs who allowed his personal vendetta to get in the way of, oh, letting people watch and read stuff.)

I started the process on my desktop, but found the screen – wide as it is –  to be more of a burden than a blessing. With the two-page spread, the panels were just slightly too small to read comfortably with my computer on my lap (which is where I keep it most of the time.) Using the zoom was fine for a single spread, but when I “turned the page” the zoom would unset and I was back to having to zoom again. I avoided “Guided View” so I have no idea what it might have done.

Table of Contents was a bit vexing. Shortcuts to the chapters worked variably well.Sometimes it was easier just to start from the beginning.

The Language control is a nice little feature. Click the Globe and the Japanese script replaces the English script. Ideally one day there’ll be more options, too.

Then I moved to my tablet. Wow. This was absolutely the best way to read JManga, IMHO. I was able to switch to a single-page view with a click (all the commands live on the bottom right hand corner – they disappear when you don’t use them for a bit, just move your mouse/finger around the general area and the controls pop up.

On some of the series, the full page view was a tad wonky at first – the page would be half off the screen, or too high up. Once I pulled it into place, the next page would do the same. Suddenly, for no reason, the system grokked what I wanted of it, and the whole thing worked nicely. Next time, same weirdness, but I only had to reposition a page once. Third time, it was fine.

On the tablet, the pages were perfectly sized in the single page view. I quite often read manga with the spine bent back (it’s my manga, I can mangle it as I see fit) so this one page at a time was fine. A quick turn of the screen allowed me to enjoy a two-page spread. The text was clear (clearer in some series than others, depending on the fonts chosen, and no one was choosing for middle-aged eyes, if you take my meaning.) I only needed to zoom once, because a side comment was very small. This is acceptable – I have quite often pulled out the magnifying glass to read an aside in a print manga in Japanese.

Turning the pages on the tablet was not emotionally satisfying – poking the page, then waiting for the new page to load wasn’t as elegant as I’d hoped. I prefer the swiping motion, but the tap to turn was functional, so I’m not complaining.

On the whole, I’ll stick with reading my JManga on the tablet. As soon as they come up with an Android app to allow me access to my library when there’s no Wi-fi, I’ll be happy with the deal.

Negatives: Poking my screen makes me pokey; no technical credits on the stories; clunky ToC; variable fonts/quality.

Positives: Perfect for the tablet; simple controls, easy to figure out; wacky great stuff to read that we’d never encounter elsewhere.

Notebook: B
Tablet: A

Conclusion

Since JManga launched a mere 7 months ago, they’ve come a long way. They clearly listen to their market and they have really showed some stretch in content, format and presentation.

Of course there’s things that can be improved, but I have complete confidence that JManga is on the right track to being a powerful digital manga bookstore.

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20 Responses

  1. BruceMcF says:

    If trying to read JManga on a device where the page is just too small, the trick is to turn on the page thumbnails selector. That’s my experience for most of the manga at JManga on either my 7″ “skinny tablet” style Nook Color or my 10″ netbook.

    The thumbnails selector is a small grey oval that pops up with the information bar at the top (just like the control panel pops up on the bottom), to the right of the screen and beneath the information bar. There is an even smaller (+) in a circle, that turns the thumbnail view on and off ~ when its on, the thumbnails show up when the top information bar is visible, and fade when it fades.

    When you pick a new page with the thumbnails selection, it doesn’t reset zoom ~ it goes to the same spot on the next page that you are on in the current one. My wish is that it would start at the top right corner, but in any event so long as the zoom stays locked, sliding around a zoomed out screen is workable, either with a mousepad or with a touchscreen.

    If you ever accidentally turn the page with a tap, you have to reset your zoom, but once you get used to it, I don’t think that would happen much unless you were trying to read on a bus.

    Needless to say, a zoom lock option and page turns holding the top right hand corner on screen when it rezooms would make the whole process much smoother, but until and unless someone “fixes” the thumbnail view selector to reset to full page display, that’s the most workable way to read manga on a smaller screen device for the manga that does not have GuidedView available.

  2. Felix says:

    …and while credits are rolled over from one month to the next, there is a sincerely held concern that there might be a time limit for rolled over credits…

    According to JManga’s clear and easy to read User Guide, there is an expiration date on points. Also while you do not lose your points when you drop down to a free account, you can not buy anything with points you already have while you only have a free account.

    http://www.jmanga.com/guide#point_month

    I think I would love JManga like I love Crunchyroll if they actually had a subscription model.

    Thank you for your review of JManga and I hope you are able to affect even more changes in the future to improve it for manga fans around the world.

  3. @Felix – Yes, you cannot buy when you have a free account, but that misses the point of what I was saying. Buy some manga, use that months points up. Then, if you cannot afford the next month, drop down to free and you still can read what you have already purchased.

    It pretty much makes no sense to pay them money, then not buy anything and drop back to free account status.

    Amd yes, points have a lifespan…but again, why would you hoard credits? There’s no value in credits except as tokens to buy entertainment. I don’t go to an arcade, get $10 worth of credits, then take them home hoping they’ll appreciate in value, either. ^_^

  4. Jst says:

    I was pleasantly surprised to find ‘Love My Life’ on JManga the other day. I saw the movie a while back and when reading about it online realized there was a comic as well, finding it available to read digitally was a nice surprise indeed.

    Jmanga’s decisions thus far do make me wonder if the promised iOS and Android versions will in fact have an offline mode. Having an online only ‘app’ reader does seem to track with some of the limitations the service seems to have placed thus far. We shall see.

  5. Felix says:

    @ Erica – Actually at the price of 499 points, you will always have points left over. Get 2000 points, buy four manga for 1996 points, and have 4 points left over. If the points didn’t expire, and I keep on buying manga from them, over time the “change” would build up and I would have enough to buy a volume with.

    As for dropping down to free and not being able to use points. Lets say I receive a new block of points at the start of the billing month and during the rest of that month it turns out there is nothing I want to buy, so I decide to drop down to free before the next renewal date so I’m not buying any more points that I don’t need right now. This leaves a month worth of points sitting in my account. Then after a couple months a newly released volume catches my eye and I want to buy it. Should I have to buy more points just to use the points I already have?

  6. Eric P. says:

    The ‘subscription’ alone is what made me hesitate in jumping on board at first, for the reasons you’ve said–I’m only interested in a small handful of current titles. So thanks for the heads-up on how to work around that! Now I can check out ‘Poor Poor Lips’ and ‘Love My Life.’

  7. @Felic – Yes, after spending 499 x 2 credits to buy two manga volumes, you’ll have the equivalent of 2 cents worth of credits left over.

    I count myself lucky that, when considering the cost of shipping manga from Japan, (roughly $80-$100/shipment) the opportunity cost of 2 cents doesn’t seem all that critical to me. Obviously, we’ll all have different opinions on this.

    Personally, I’m glad to even have a chance to read things like Ekiben Hitoritabi and Madame Joker for roughly $2.50 a pop. I don’t really care if I can’t “keep” them – I just wanted to read them in the first place and this was a very inexpensive way of doing so. Manga I want to own, I’ll buy.

    If you get points and drop to free, those points will rollover for a few months until – exactly as I said, you have a few bucks in your pocket and you want to upgrade again.

    I agree that it’s not the most optimal purchasing plan ever, and you are under no obligation to like it.

  8. BruceMcF says:

    Excellent review!

    On the spoiled points issue … at the moment I’m constrained to the $10/month plan, so manga to buy are accumulating faster than points … and as long as there’s always manga to buy, there’s no concern about points expiring, since “oldest” points spend first, so the points left over are always “fresh points”.

    And from stuff already on the site or coming this month, I’m set through May at least, and possibly July. Odds are in that time more than enough will show up so I’ll be set through the end of the year

    However, what I’d really like to see (as I’ve mentioned before and already told JManga (and aside from a locked zoomed or simplified stereotype GuidedView for the 4Koma)) would be to see the chapters that make up an entire actual magazine where you could buy into the magazine at a “chapter rental” cost … and if you then went ahead to buy volumes containing chapters you had “rented”, the rental price credited to the volume purchase. I think the YenPlus model of access to the current issue and the previous issue and then the serial access expires is a simple to understand and implement one that could work well. And it gives a simple calendar date to the expiration of “first digital publication” rights connected to a chapter in a given magazine.

    After all, cheap disposable serial manga and more expensive collectible manga once people have become hooked on a particular series is part of the core business model that built up the market in the print manga era. It needs fine tuning to fit the new medium … but the basic system works well for introducing people to new works.

  9. Steve says:

    I agree substantially with the points made in the review. I’m optimistic about the potential of JManga.com — and I now visit weekly to look for new titles. This can become something really great.

    The reading experience — always having to click zoom (click next page and then click click click click to zoom) is extremely tedious. Why is it that I have to work so hard to be able to read a page? The ‘guided view’ option solves this problem for me…. but is available only on a minority of titles in my collection. It really is exhausting to read more than a chapter at present.

    In the long term, this service needs to be delivered in a form which I can read offline. The way it works now, internet connection required, makes my purchases of more limited value. For example, I can’t generally read JManga tiles on the plane or bus, in a meeting center lobby, etc. I can read at the hotel… by paying extra. It will be a major disappointment if the rumored tablet version is not usable offline.

    I’m entirely committed in the near term and am going to buy everything that interests me. I know it takes time to get something like this off the ground. I really want it to work.

    But the reading experience simply needs to improve. I can even live with the peculiar subscription requirement, as long as we continue to get more and more series to buy. I don’t understand, don’t see why it is beneficial, and doubt that it helps them. But even my best friends have quirks and I can accept it.

  10. @Steve -“But even my best friends have quirks and I can accept it.”

    That is *such* a good line. I will surely steal it. ^_^

  11. BruceMcF says:

    @Steve ~ tell them that on the Feedback tab ~ I’m pretty sure they’re a bit tired of reading my ramblings on the topic.

    If you don’t have time to write up a fix, you are free to copy and paste your preferred fix among the various solutions I’ve floated.

    (1) Add a “zoom lock” button to the setting panel that pops up when hitting the gear button in the top bar. When the page turns in zoom lock, it rezooms to the previous zoom level, and holds the top right hand corner of the page on screen.

    (2) In GuidedView mode when there is no panel info, zoom straight to 100% with (+) and to full height with (-). When zooming to 100%, keep the top right corner on screen.

    (3) A semi-automatic “4koma” setting for GuidedView when there is no panel by panel info for 4koma manga: top two right panels, middle two right panels, bottom two right panels, top two left panels, middle two left panels, bottom two left panels by default. Then note which are the new chapter pages with an alternate panel by panel a top half of the page, two bottom right panels, and two bottom left panels transition for those. In all cases the viewport goes from page edge to neighboring panel edge.

    (4) Instead of slicing the screen in half for nextpage and previouspage, slice it into a checkerboard. The middle third are next page, toggle 100% zoom / full height, and previous page. The top third are slide to the top left corner, straight up to the top edge, and to the top right corner. The bottom third are slide to the bottom right corner, straight to the bottom edge, and to the bottom left corner.

  12. DezoPenguin says:

    Incidentally, they’re doing a “buy a Yuri manga, get 100 points back” special this week (“week” meaning 3/22-3/28). Buy five, get one free (or buy one, get the 100 extra points Love My Life costs for some reason ^_^ )!

  13. Gustavo says:

    Great review, Erica.

    I agree that reading on the tablet is very good, but only when the browser works. I have an Asus Transformer with Android 4.0 and there are some glitches. Don’t know if it’s a hardware or connection problem on my end, but the browsers keep crashing.

    Which one did you use? I got better results with the default one and Opera. That’s why I can’t wait for them to release an app.

    Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to enjoy Poor poor Lips vol. 3. =D

  14. @DezoPenguin – Yes indeed. I’ll be announcing that fully tomorrow. The sale on Yuri goes through the 28th of March.

    @Gustavo – The default browser, whatever that is. I would have presumed it was Chrome, but it doesn’t look like it.

  15. Steve says:

    @BruceMcF, at your suggestion I did go to JManga and logged my issues with their viewer app. And, separately, I forwarded my plea for future offline content.

    Clearly, I should have done that sooner. This zoom thing has been driving me crazy.

    @Erica Friedman, ah yeah, quirkiness never puts me off. And apparently my friends don’t hold it against me either. :-)

  16. Steve says:

    You know, JManga responded to my Feedback messages within an hour. They don’t guarantee to respond to feedback… but I may simply have been lucky. Further both responses were encouraging.

    About my difficulties with reading and the zoom feature, they responded thus: “…we are working on incorporating guided view on more titles, and failing that, adjusting the zoom to be constant, as per request!”

    On the question of whether titles can be read offline, they say, “We at JManga indeed have an iOS app in the works, which will allow for offline reading (the same features as will be in the Android app), as we know that this has been a source of frustration to our users.”

    Keeping my fingers crossed.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for mentioning Joker. I had been eyeing this title for a bit and the mention in the column got me off the fence. And you are absolutely right, it’s well worth the subscription. I signed up to read Adekan (who wouldn’t want to read about a barely clothed umbrella maker and his policeman friend), but found the historical volume on Akechi to be quite interesting and I do love the cat painter stories.

    I’ve come to some kind peace with how the subscription thing runs. I have accepted the fact that this could all be temporary, so I regard this just as an entertainment. The arcade analogy is a good one. That said, I do think that I might be facing changing subscription terms if the selection falls off.

    Thanks for the great review.

  18. Benny B says:

    Erica thanks for the article.

    When you wrote “So, for that $10, you could “purchase” up to 4 manga.”

    By “manga,” are you referring to a chapter of manga or a volume of manga?

    $2.50 would be a great deal for a volume of manga.

    By “volume” I mean a book I would buy at a store.

  19. @Benny B – A volume, not a chapter. If you join during a sale, and the volumes you buy are 499 points, then with the doubled credits yoy get, you can get four volumes for your $10.

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