iPad as E-Reader: Glaring Problems, Promising Apps

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Despite dismissing the e-book market in 2008 with the ill-conceived remark that "people don't read anymore," Steve Jobs seemed pretty fired up about Apple's new iBooks app when he introduced the iPad in January. And as it turns out, iBooks is an outstanding reader app.

Much like Amazon's Kindle Store, iBooks gives you a way to shop for thousands of e-book titles directly from the device. Unlike Amazon, however, iBooks has no desktop component, so the shopping and reading experience is strictly limited to the iPad itself.

Instead of building iBooks into the iPad's OS, Apple has released the app as a free download from the App Store. To ensure that you get it, Apple prompts you to download it the first time you launch the App Store on your iPad (unless you already have iBooks installed). The app comes with a Winnie the Pooh book preloaded, and you can tap the Store button in the upper left corner to go shopping for more content.

Compared with Amazon's Kindle Store, iBooks purchases can be pricey. Titles that sell for $10 on Amazon tend to run a comparatively expensive $13 from iBooks. The pricing discrepancy reflects some sweetheart deals that Amazon strongarmed out of book publishers at the Kindle's launch, and there's good reason to believe that Amazon's prices will soon rise to match Apple's--a boon to the book business, no doubt, but only by an unnaturally long view of enlightened self-interest a good deal for book buyers.

iBooks offers more eye candy than similar readers do. In a brilliant stroke of realism, the app's designers made pages appear to be translucent, so as you slowly turn a page (by dragging your finger inward from the outer corner of the screen), you see a reversed and muted image of the contents of the other side of the page. Of course, the fastest way to navigate is to tap the screen on one side or the other. Tapping on the right moves you forward through the text; tapping on the left moves you backward. And because it takes only a light touch, you can flip pages almost unconsciously as you read. Another plus: iBooks offers a choice of ten font sizes, twice as many as the Kindle app does, for greater control over the reading experience.

By and large, in my reading, iBooks offered the slickest e-book navigation experience I've had on any device. Regrettably, however, iBooks makes a poor choice for anyone who wants to read e-book purchases on more than one device. Unless you plan to take the iPad with you everywhere, you'll be without an e-reader much of the time. To make its bookstore more compelling, Apple needs to make desktop and phone versions of its reader. Until that happens, I won't be buying any more books from Apple.

Third-Party E-Book Apps

The best news about the iPad's e-book functionality is that Apple elected not to ban third-party e-reader apps from its app store. As a result, Amazon's excellent Kindle app can serve up all of my existing e-books on this new device--and I have an iPad-friendly reading option that will run on most of my other machines as well. Because of its great cross-platform support, Kindle Reader is by far the best choice currently available for new, commercial e-books on the iPad. And even if its e-book prices eventually ascend to iBooks levels, Kindle's relative openness stands in stark contrast to the closed cell block of Apple's offerings.

Navigating in Kindle Reader for iPad is similar to using iBooks, though some of the sweeter animation effects--mainly the page translucency mentioned above--are absent from Amazon's reader. I'd say that's a pretty small trade-off in exchange for broader device portability in your book purchases.

Also interesting is a reader app called Kobo, which distributes books in various formats for mobile devices and the Web. Unfortunately, the one book I downloaded from Kobo's store came in totally devoid of content--literally not a single word on the inside pages--so I can't recommend it at this time.

UPDATE: Kobo.com experienced a database outage today, apparently due to lack of testing prior to the iPad launch. After uninstalling and reinstalling the app on my device, the purchased e-book is now working correctly. Kobo's app offers a fluid slider bar for font sizing and a variety of page-turning animations, as well as a night reading mode that inverts the page contrast. However, the app's menu navigation needs further refinement, as it sometimes takes several taps to bring up the menu bars, resulting in inadvertent page turns in the process.

Keep Your Options Open

People who predicted that the iPad would kill the market for dedicated E-Ink readers are dead wrong. If anything, the iPad is the amazing, magical device that proves the value of E-Ink.

Don't believe me? Take an iPad to the beach someday and try to spend the afternoon reading. You'll be lucky if you can see around your own reflection long enough to finish a paragraph of text.

E-Ink devices such as the Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, to the contrary, perform splendidly in bright sunlight. Moreover, E-Ink is far friendlier to batteries than the iPad's LED screen. While I wouldn't dare dismiss the iPad's formidable battery life, it doesn't compare to the multiday performance of E-Ink-based readers on a single charge.

What separates the iPad from all dedicated readers, of course, is the fact that it's a multifunction device. On launch day, the list of available apps is impressively large, and adding e-books to the mix just makes sense. At the same time, I can't understand what value rumored Amazon Kindle apps might bring in some future iteration of that platform. So on the basis of its multitude of uses, I chalk up big points in the iPad's column.

Ultimately, if you're looking for a device primarily to read e-books on, the iPad is likely a bad move. It's more expensive than most other e-readers, and it's less usable in a broad range of lighting conditions. But if you're a light reader who doesn't mind a little extra weight in your hands, and you want something that does way more than download and display text, the iPad is a remarkable option.

Robert Strohmeyer is Executive Editor at PCWorld. He tweets as @rstrohmeyer.

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