CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
If you're an avid or even an occasional reader, you've certainly purchased a book that you didn't like once you started reading and ended up never finishing. Monthly book subscription service Oyster aims to stop that from ever happening again. For $10 per month, you get unlimited access to a catalog of 500,000 e-books that you get read for as long as you want. The catch is that you don't actually own those books, and if you cancel your subscription they disappear. The app launched on iOS in January 2014, and came to Android in June 2014.
Oyster has been compared to Netflix, which is a decent metaphor because there are no due dates, no late fees, and you get unlimited access to the catalog of books. However, unlike Netflix, which has changed people's habits around purchasing DVDs, Oyster still has a ways to go before it changes how you purchase books. Because they company is still working with publishers to get more books, the catalog is still limited, so you won't find new releases or many of the popular titles from recent years. For those books, you'll still need to head to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local bookshop for an e-book or a hard copy.
By signing up for Oyster, you get a free 30-day trial, so you can try out the service before you commit. However, one of the biggest sticking points is that you have to enter a credit card to start your trial and use the app -- you cannot do anything inside the app until you do. Luckily, it's quite easy to cancel your trial before it runs out, or your paid monthly subscription -- just head to the Oyster website to do it.
Now on to design, which is Oyster's biggest strength. Both the Android and iOS apps are modern, colorful, and impeccably designed. Compared with the Amazon Kindle app, which is a bit bland and dark, Oyster is light and simple, with just a few menus for browsing and searching the catalog. There's a particularly pretty page of rich color photos where you can explore collections of books by genre, including summer reads, sci-fi, and children's literature.
The main screen is called the Home page, and there you'll find themed collections of books, recommended titles for you, and your reading list -- the list of books you want to read or are currently reading. There's also a carousel of book genres at the top if the page, and a search bar to hunt for books by keyword, author, and title.
Each book has its own dedicated page with the book's cover art, a synopsis, publishing details, accolades (such as if it's been featured on the New York Times Best Seller list), related books, and a handy button to add it to your reading list. There's also an "Activity" section, which simply shows a row of profile pictures of other uses who have added that book to their reading list. You can tap any photo to view that user's profile and see what else they're reading. To start reading a book, just tap the arrow icon on top of the cover art to download it to your device.
Reading a book with Oyster is similar to reading any other e-book. You can swipe or tap the edges of the screen to turn the pages, and overall the app felt responsive to my gestures. As you read, the app tells you how many pages are left in the chapter or section you're in, and roughly how much time it will take to finish.
Oyster gives you a few options to personalize your reading experience, just tap the middle of the screen to bring up a toolbar with two menus. The first one (indicated by a set of three horizontal lines) is a table of contents that lets you jump around to different sections of the book, which is particularly helpful for reference books or cookbooks. Unfortunately, with some books, this menu didn't always take me to the correct place.
In the other menu (with the small and large letter A icon), you can adjust the text size and change the screen brightness. Oyster has five themes that alter the font style, text accent color, and background texture, ranging from a simple black and white theme to a colorful and modern design. There's a night mode too, which makes the app's background black for when you're reading in the dark and don't want to stare at a bright-white screen.
In most cases, the text, and photos of the book are laid out in the same way you'd find them in the print version. The exception to that is cookbooks and other lifestyle books, which removes much of the formatting and background designs, but keeps the photos intact.
There are two key features missing from the Android version that the Oyster iOS app has. The first is the ability to look up the definition of a word while you're reading. The second is being able to delete books you've previously downloaded to free up space on your device. After you're finished reading a book in the Android app, you can only mark a book as finished, which doesn't remove it from your phone or tablet. Oyster says it plans to add both features in a future update.
Oyster's catalog is the weakest part of the service, but that's not entirely the company's fault. Since on-demand book subscription services are still new, many publishers haven't jumped on board to offer their books, yet. It's similar to the early days of Netflix streaming video, when the selection was limited because the company didn't hold to rights to many TV shows or movies. Oyster plans to expand the selection as it can, and you can send an email to the company to request a book you want.
Until then, the book selection is hit or miss. Oyster has a mix of current books from the last few years and works from classic writers. That means you'll find Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography alongside titles from Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. However, it's missing many culturally significant books, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Catcher in the Rye." Popular new releases, including the "Hunger Games" series and "Orange is the New Black," are absent as well.
Oyster has a rating system that's designed to learn from what you like and don't in order to offer you suggestions on what to read next. On each book page, there's a five-star rating scale; tap it to add your own rating and help Oyster understand your preferences. As you read and rate books, your Home page will change to offer up better suggestions.
You can also get suggestions from other users in the app, by looking at their reading lists and following their activity. You also have the option to add your own friends who are using Oyster, but you'll need to manually search for them. It's disappointing that you can sign up with Facebook, but you can't import your friends list to see who else is using Oyster. Keep in mind that anyone can add follow your activity in the app and see your reading list. If you don't want others to see that romantic novel you're reading, you can open the table of contents menu and tap the option to "read privately," which hides it from your profile.
With its $10-per-month service that gives you unlimited access to its catalog of 500,000 books, Oyster is banking on the idea that many people are reluctant to purchase a book that they might not like or bother to finish. You can start a book, ditch it if you don't like it, and move on to another title, or you could start multiple books at the same time and finish them on your own schedule. It's a great alternative to purchasing every single e-book you want to read, and taking a gamble on whether you'll like it or not.
However, while Oyster's promise of unlimited access to books sounds enticing, the experience is a bit of a letdown. The catalog is limited, missing many of the latest and much-talked about titles. Oyster excels in its design, but it's more beauty than brains.