Blog Post

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.

18 Responses to “Pricey iPad Not A Must-Have Dedicated E-Reader; Kindle App Outperforms Apple’s iBooks”

  1. Jason Eddins

    I love most Apple products and am an avid reader, having used a Kindle to read more than 60 books in the past year. I purchased the iPad two weeks ago as I’ve been traveling a lot and wanted something more than my Kindle to take with me to watch videos, share photos, surf the Web, etc. I did end up taking the iPad back this weekend as it really stinks as an eReader. Everything else was great, but when used as an eReader, my eyes hurt after reading for more than fifteen minutes – even with the backlighting turned down almost to a minimum. On top of that, the glare on the glass screen meant you had to almost read in total darkness. Even on the subway, I ended up basically looking in a mirror instead of in a book. For the light reader reading magazines indoors, go for it. If you really read in any long-form way, steer clear, especially if this is going to be a third or more of your iPad usage. Your eyes will thank you.

  2. realroz

    It’s an interesting problem. Even though I don’t own an e-reader I can see that people have really adopted them and benefit from them. And given that, I don’t see the iPad as a great substitution for a Kindle. The Kindle has a better screen for reading, better battery life, its lighter, and cheaper. Still, I would find it really hard to plunk down money on a Kindle right now. The iPad is just too attractive for every other use out there. So does the iPad kill the Kindle, when actually the Kindle serves better for reading, it’s intended function? Maybe it does. Unless the Kindle hardware could be given away, which it probably can’t given that AMZ loses money on the books, it’s a tougher sell now.

    Personally, I prefer the economics of the iPad, despite what you write, given that the iPad offers benefits in many areas that the Kindle cannot touch – and still offers the Kindle app. And here is a point that maybe does not get enough credit above, even if you are not a fan of iBooks, given Kobo and Kindle, the iPad has opened the door to competitive bookstores on a single device – that is a win, comparable to the Kindle spanning many platforms. Apple deserves credit for not even bundling the iBooks app with iPad and making a somewhat even playing field.

  3. fromtheright

    I hate the gray background and lack of contrast on the Nook and the Kindle. I absolutely love the iPad for ebooks. I have downloaded the app for Barnes and Noble and the app for the Kindle in my iPad. Both work great. All of your previously purchased ebooks are there. The iPad app for ebooks, which you get from iTunes, is the best of the three. The beauty of the iPad is that it does so much more than read books. My number one app is Words for Friends. That is a real time scrabble game you can play with your kids and grandkids who have iPhones or the iPod Touch.

  4. You have made good analysis on this comparison of iPad with other e readers like the Kindle. Not to mention superiority of e readers if you just want long hours of text reading, the delivery format and the outstanding array of content from cannot simply be matched by Apple at the moment. Not even close, I think.

  5. I am using an Acer 1810TZ notebook with 11.6 inch LED screen running Windows 7. I am not an avid reader but in a pinch I can read a book on it and if I need to, I can rotate the screen and read like an open book. How I wish it is a tablet and with touch screen. I agree with others that carrying an iPAD and a notebook is heavy. For lighter weight, and for my computing need, the THINNEST tablet notebook will be my object of desire.

  6. Abe Dane

    I know the post was headlined a comparison of dedicated e-readers, but I think the web gets short shrift here. The iPad is extraordinarily well optimized for mobile web reading…by *far* the best device for this purpose I’ve yet laid my hands on (even allowing for the absence of Flash).

    What’s this have to do with e-books/e-readers?

    For many kinds of books, particularly in professional and educational categories (which have been leading paid content adopters), the web is actually a preferred way of accessing content electronically. Here, search is often the main interaction mode, so the slick page-flipping experiences offered by installed apps and Flash don’t matter so much. Cross-platform compatibility is key, too. These users need to be able to access information on whatever tools fit their particular IT and organizational environment. Also, from a marketing standpoint, these books are already niche products, so publishers can’t afford to narrow further by committing to a specific platform. Plus they often have strong, highly targeted brands, so the retail critical mass of Amazon, or potentially, iBooks is much less important.

    So I’d argue the web is every bit as important an e-reading medium as Kindle or iBooks, and the iPad is likely to make it even more so.

    • Staci D. Kramer

      @Abe Dane I agree that web reading can be very good via iPad, especially
      when sites are designed for it, and that the web should be considered as an
      option, but that kind of reading requires access — which brings me back to
      the wi-fi only concern for anyone looking for a portable solution. But I’ll
      definitely keep your words in mind.

  7. @Staci D. Kramer I totally agree that the Kindle is perfect for its cited purpose, reading books. Apple is essentially offering the bookstore as part of a larger offering. I doubt anyone buying an iPad would use it for 1 single purpose like reading without at least dabbling in the other functions the device offers.

    My original point is that I don’t think at $499 the iPad is too expensive. Sure if you use it solely as an eBook reader I think most people would have a tough time swallowing the price, but for everything else it brings to the table it’s priced quite competitively.

  8. Calling the iPad overpriced as compared to the Kindle seems pretty laughable. First off, the Kindle that is in the same “weight class” as the iPad is the Kindle DX, which is $10 cheaper then the iPad and shares a similar sized screen. Comparing it to the standard Kindle is an apples and oranges comparison. You can throw the 3G comparison in there, but the fact the Kindle doesn’t have wifi, which is a pretty glaring omission and generally costs nothing to use when compared to 3G.

    I think all along the Kindle has simply been a trojan horse to get people reading e-books. While it may be a great device, it’s obvious Amazon needed a catalyst to get into the market and they wanted to stake out their territory before others inevitably moved in. The fact Amazon has an app for every device going just shows the Kindle isn’t going to be around for the long haul. They simply wanted to establish the network and extend their brand loyalty into the e-book market.

    • Staci D. Kramer

      @jamEs harris It’s too expensive as a dedicated e-reader, not as a
      multiple-use device. If you’re only comparing the Kindle DX and the iPad and
      wi-fi is enough access for you (something that needs to be considered),
      you’d get the iPad. If instant on-the-go access matters — not when wi-fi
      can be cadged or becomes ubiquitous, then you need to factor in those extra
      costs for the 3G version and data fees for the iPad. If you want 3G access,
      more portability, can live with the paperback size and b/w, and don’t want
      to do more than read e-books for now, the Kindle is a much lower priced

  9. David Stewart

    There are some major issues left unexplored here.

    One, Amazon by all accounts is losing money on most of the ebooks it sells. It is using the book store as a loss leader to sell Kindles. If it is competing with iBooks by doing a better eBook app then it is burying itself. Maybe once the eBook market settles Amazon can start making money on eBooks, but it stands to lose a lot in the mean time.

    Two, many books don’t look good on the Kindle (or any other eInk readers). Color, better contrast, better formatting and much improved navigation are big wins for devices like the iPad. These may not matter for people who mainly read paperbacks, but for many others they are major factors.

    Three, it is easy to think things like 3G are much bigger issues than they really are. In the end it more often than not turns out the vast majority of consumers care far less about these sorts of things than pundits would have you believe. It seems to me most people do the majority of their reading at and around their home making the reliance of wifi a non-issue. Likewise, finding free wifi to leach off to buy a book while traveling is increasingly easy. We have to remember than the vast, vast majority of people have never had a Kindle and have relied on actually buying paperbacks at airport and beach-side bookstores while traveling, so finding a free wifi hotspot is really no big deal.

    Four, I would be wary of judging iBooks by just this initial launch. Apple has a history of dramatically improving products following the feedback from the initial launch. The iPhone today is much different beast than it was at launch and it seems likely Apple will improve the iBooks application substantially going forward.

  10. contentnext


    I think maybe the specific books I have that were illustrated must be bad examples where the publisher didn’t take the time to do it right. In two books specifically I actually can’t even tell what the illustrations are supposed to be.

  11. Staci D. Kramer

    @jamie The illustration quality is pretty decent in Kindle 2 — works for New Yorker cartoons, Winnie the Pooh (which I tried to today to compare it to the color quality) — but its b/w only. It sounds like you would be one of the people buying the iPad for multiple uses, so using it as an e-reader plus casual gaming, etc.

    @ghunda I think it might have been odd for me to judge the iPad based on its use as an mp3 player or the like but a lot of people are looking to it as an e-reader solution primarily so it’s worth taking the time to judge it that way. I’m sure Apple will keep developing the app much as Amazon has but again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out it isn’t “amazing” — Apple’s word, not mine — at this point. On the beyond books, yes, lots of apps are coming but people who complain about leaving an app to buy a book aren’t likely to be thrilled about hopping between apps to read different kinds of material although some will put up with it if the apps are good enough because they like the device. Of course, mileage can — and will — vary.

  12. contentnext

    @zato, if you only knew how many of us were Mac/iPhone users.

    Having a less than glowing opinion of one aspect of an Apple product does not make one an anti-Apple propaganda machine.

  13. ghunda

    Strange basis for an article. The point of the device is that it isn’t a dedicated anything. Perhaps Apple knows that isn’t in a position to deliver the best application for reading books so it didn’t load the iBooks application by default. Though given that it’s not in Apple’s best interest for any one company to dominate any form of media on its platform, it’s going to keep developing the iBooks application. As for “beyond books” – there are companies developing here (and not the app by app model). Give it some time.

  14. contentnext

    I think maybe I’m indicative of a different use type. I tend to use my Kindle mostly from home and I actually keep the 3G off most of the time as I seem to be in a bad reception area for Sprint and my Kindle eats through the battery fast when I have it on (like 3 days). When I do travel with it I usually already have a backlog of books loaded up for me to read.

    That I can get my Kindle books on my iPad is a big plus though.

    I think Amazon actually stands to gain quite a bit from iPad sales. I’d really like to see their book’s graphic quality go up a lot though. The few Kindle books I have that have illustrations are really quite terrible (in illustration quality not content). You might as well not include illustrations in your books if you are going to limit it to small blocky unrecognizable scans of whatever was supposed to be there.

    Not sure if that’s publisher laziness or an issue with Amazon’s platform though. I know from a code aspect ePub does allow for more flexibility in how things are formatted than the MOBI based Kindle format.

    And then there’s the fact that casual game playing on an iPad is second to none. And these days casual games are all I ever have time to play anymore. Due to the screen and processor differences the Amazon application platform doesn’t really have any chance of comparing.

    Anyway, after actually playing with one in the store I’m severely tempted to get one even without the web cam that I really wish it had. We’ll see.