Pricey iPad Not A Must-Have Dedicated E-Reader; Kindle App Outperforms Apple’s iBooks

Let me get this one piece of advice out of the way: if you’re thinking of buying an Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) iPad primarily to read e-books, don’t — unless you’d rather spend extra bucks on looking cool than on books. At $499, the cheapest WiFi-only iPad is vastly overpriced as an e-reader and in a world without ubiquitous access, underpowered for anyone used to being able to get reading material on the fly. Yes, it’s more pleasant to look at book covers in color than a dull black-and-white title list but that’s no reason to splurge on a high-end device for a single task, even if you expand it to newspapers and magazines.

That’s not to dismiss the e-book experience on an iPad or the value of buying one with e-reading as one of the uses in mind. The touchscreen, once you adapt to how fast pages can flip whether you want them to or not, replicates paper page turning better than clicking a button. The color adds to the experience when it’s relevant to books, which isn’t the case for most adult titles. The larger screen size and the ability to switch from portrait to landscape enhances reading, just as it did with the Kindle DX but in a sleeker, easier-to-manage package. But Apple’s iBooks isn’t the best way to use an iPad as e-reader. So far, the best option both for buying and reading is the Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) Kindle for iPad app.

That shouldn’t be surprising, even to those who believe Apple does most things better than anyone else. Amazon has a head start on e-reading by a couple of years and has been working on software for access beyond its own devices for more than a year. (Rafat has suggested Amazon’s platform is strong enough to shift Kindle to software-only but the strategy for now is still very much device plus, and rightly so for at least the next couple of years.) Still, I’m shocked by how unimpressed I was by iBooks. Apple promises “amazing”in the App Store description — maybe it will feel that way to people who have never read an e-book before but this version is missing the wow. The revolving bookshelf is a nice touch but not enough. The vaunted Apple multi-touch resizing went missing when I wanted to expand the map of the “100 Aker Wood” in the free iBooks edition of Winnie-the-Pooh. Apple said this morning that roughly 250,000 e-books were downloaded from its iBookstore Saturday. The more informative stats would be how many were actual purchases — and how many downloads did Kindle deliver to iPads over the weekend.

Users can change type size and brightness and pick from five fonts. But Apple inexplicably skipped the ability to switch to white text on black for night reading, something provided by Kindle and Kobo. Kindle also offers sepia as an easier background than white for some but no font options; Kobo offers four fonts and four page-turning options. (The Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) app for iPad wasn’t available this weekend and the iPhone version upsized through the handy, dandy 2x button on the iPad isn’t a fair comparison.) Apple uses ePub, a plus, but only accepts DRM-free ePub books added to iTunes on a user’s PC or Mac and synced to the iPad. To look at PDFs or other documents, you have to go to other apps.

Shopping: Books are easier to buy through Apple’s iBookstore than the competitors because you don’t have to leave the app but the choices are slimmer than Kindle so far. Apple has yet to strike a deal with Random House, among others. The Kobo app is a good alternative for reading but still appears to be more limited than Kindle on choice. It’s also a less informative experience so far. Apple is starting from scratch; Amazon can draw on years of customer reviews, professional reviews, author interviews and additional material. Kobo offers a Tudor list with a few options; Amazon offers the complete nine-volume Jean Plaidy Tudor series for $102, a $25 discount from digital list price. Apple doesn’t have any of the Plaidy books yet. That’s not an ironclad test of content by any stretch, just an example. Kobo and Kindle spotlight books below $9.99; Apple has a section for that but everything on its front page is $9.99 or higher.

The access issue: It took two-and-a-half hours to get my iPad and about five minutes to realize that using it successfully will take some serious readjustment for someone used to an iPhone, especially when it comes to content. As long as I stick to my home network or others where I have easy access, the iPad world is my oyster. As soon as I step outside the magic circle, I’m limited to whatever is already on board. I couldn’t use it in the E terminal at Hartsfield without paying for WiFi. No WiFi at the mall where we went to the movies and the router at the deli we go to was down, so downloading there wasn’t an option. This plays up the notion of the iPad — at least this first edition — as a home or office device but I do most of my e-reading on the road. No last-minute downloads of reading material from the boarding line or the plane. Those whose experience is primarily with an iTouch will have a much easier time adapting.

The form factor: The iPad is sleek — and heavy. It’s not an easy one-handed read on the go — or even sitting. I was able to manage the Kindle with a cast on one hand; holding the iPad would be tough and actually using it even tougher. Lugging the iPad plus a laptop could get tiresome as was the case with the Kindle DX; unlike the DX, using it as a laptop substitute will work for some. (I have a Sony (NYSE: SNE) Vaio that is only 1.5 inches wider than the iPad so for me the combined weight is still less than most laptops. If carrying both starts to get a little heavy to me … )

Device price: I mentioned it above but it’s worth circling back. The most amazing thing Apple did with the iPad was deliver a version for $499. Buying the 3G version will run $629. That’s competitive or better if you’re comparing it to the not-here-yet Plastic Logic Que and some others but it’s more than twice the cost of a $259 Kindle with Whispersync and some web access included. The Kindle DX runs $489 — similar screen size, no color but still includes 3G access. For someone looking at a dedicated e-reader with access, not a multi-use device, the economics don’t favor iPad. If access isn’t important and paperback size works, one Sony model is selling for well under $200 now and other options are out there.

Beyond books: None of these apps deliver magazines, newspapers and blogs. One of the drawbacks for those of us who subscribe to them on Kindle is the inability to access those subscriptions across the Kindle platform. On the iPad, you’re supposed to go app by app — and pay again in some cases if you really want full access.

Update: One more thing that I should have stressed: Apple’s strategy of limiting its e-books to iBooks on the iPad is close to a stranglehold on the reader. Unlike Kindle, which can be used across platforms and on multiple devices in addition to its own, Apple locks you in, making anything you buy now useless and inaccessible beyond the iPad. That was a concern for me with Kindle until it outgrew being device specific and it continues to be a concern with the content I subscribe to on Kindle and can only see on the device.