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Hands on with Kindle Cloud Reader for iPad

Apple (s aapl) recently gave e-reader apps in the iOS App Store an ultimatum: Either sell your books through the company’s in-app purchasing system, providing Apple with a 30-percent cut of each sale, or remove any links to your own web-based stores. Obviously, that’s not ideal for e-book sellers. Which is likely why Amazon (s amzn) has decided to work around the App Store restrictions by introducing a new web-based app that works outside of Apple’s official software distribution channel.

Amazon introduced Kindle Cloud Reader on Wednesday, an HTML5-based web application that runs in mobile Safari on the iPad, Safari on the Mac and PC, and Chrome (s goog) on the Mac and other desktop operating systems. Amazon has promised support for additional browsers and platforms soon, but the fact that the iPad is in the launch group of devices makes clear Amazon’s main goal with this endeavor, which is to provide its customers with a full Kindle experience on the Apple tablet, including access to the integrated Kindle Store.

So how does it work? Once you navigate to in your iPad’s Safari browser, you’ll be greeted with an invitation to sign in with your Amazon/Kindle account. Signing in will bring you to a screen featuring your library of Kindle book purchases, as well as a prompt directing you to allow Safari to increase the size of the database permitted for the site. This is used for the offline cache Cloud Reader maintains for reading without an active internet connection. Kindle Cloud Reader lets you tap and hold books from your library to download them to local storage for offline reading, and also stores books you are currently reading offline automatically, so that your reading won’t be interrupted if you lose connection.

Actually reading books in Cloud Reader is a pleasure, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell that you aren’t using a native app, especially if you place a shortcut to the web app on your iPad’s home screen, which launched the reader in a chrome-less, full-screen browser. You can change the font size and color of your books in Cloud Reader, and also view highlights, notes and bookmarks you’ve made on other devices. You can’t make new notes or highlights using the web app, but you can add new bookmarks just by tapping the upper right-hand corner of any page, even offline. It also works in both landscape and portrait orientations, as does the integrated store.

Some of the frills of the native app are missing, like page turn animations, access to Kindle periodicals, and the ability to search through a book for keywords. You also can’t look up terms in the dictionary the way you can in the full-fledged native Kindle app. But if you use those extra features sparingly, and go through books quickly, then Cloud Reader’s built-in bookstore might make up for those omissions.

The Kindle Store included in Cloud Reader makes browsing for books on your iPad a pleasure. You get a scrollable selection of recommendations at the top of the interface, and a list of best sellers and category navigation below that. You can search the store at any point, and navigate back and forward as you browse. The individual book listings actually provide you with more info at-a-glance in a more sensibly organized way than on the Kindle Store in the desktop browser, and you can try a sample of any book in the Amazon e-book library, which loads up right in the standard Cloud Reader reading interface. Unfortunately, it doesn’t remember where you were when you switch to your library; jumping back to the store brings you to the front page.

In the end, Kindle Cloud reader works, and works well, but purely for e-reading purposes, it doesn’t really match up to its native app counterpart. That said, the ability to shop for books and read them immediately might outweigh the disadvantages for some. For me, Kindle Cloud Reader will remain on my home screen, but I won’t be using it primarily for reading; I’ll be using it to buy. The iPad-optimized Kindle Store is a pleasure to shop, and thanks to iOS multitasking, I can pretty easily switch back and forth between the native and web-based Kindle apps. Even if I don’t use Cloud Reader as a native app replacement, it does prove one thing: Keeping integrated e-book stores out of native apps benefits no one but Apple.

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