One of the main reasons I wanted to buy Apple’s iPad is to use the device as an ebook reader. I’m a big reader, and have thousands of books, but would like to be able to read some books on a portable device. Aside from any discussion of the merits of this, I thought I would look at the two main apps for reading ebooks, Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks. (I’m leaving aside the many other apps that allow you to read free ebooks, or those which offer limited catalogs. I’m just looking at the two that let you read the broadest selection. And I won’t discuss selection here either, because the iPad is too new to have the selection that Amazon offers.)
First, Amazon currently has the edge in device ubiquity, with a Kindle app for the iPhone and iPod touch, as well as for the iPad. Apple’s iBooks will, however, be available for these devices in the fall, when the company releases a new version of their software. Amazon also, however, lets you read ebooks on their own device – the Kindle – or on a Mac or PC, with a program that that works on those platforms. Apple will presumably follow suit, with a Mac version of iBooks in the fall, and perhaps even a Windows version.
But the main question remains that of display. Reading an ebook, you want the broadest range of display options, so you can get the maximum reading pleasure from the books you buy.
Let’s begin with the Kindle app. Display looks more rudimentary with the Kindle, and layout of many books is not ideal, with improper paragraph spacing and widows and orphans (paragraphs display just a single line at the beginning or end of a page). Here are two examples of the same page of a book, showing both portrait and landscape view:
Several things stand out: first, the image looks somewhat dark and grayish, rather like it does on a standalone Kindle device. The actual image on screen looks brighter, but there is a gradient that fades away toward the edges. Second, the layout is stark, utilitarian, and doesn’t look like a “book”. This is not a bad thing, actually, as there are no extraneous filigrees to distract you. When you change pages, they just wipe from one side to the other. Also, Amazon’s landscape view displays a rather wide page, which cannot be adjusted. In some cases, the lines are too long to read comfortably, and I would rather be able to set the margins in that view to keep them narrower.
With the Kindle, you have limited options to change the display. You can change the font size, but only to five sizes, and you can change the color of the display: black fonts on a white background, white fonts on a black background, and sepia fonts on a beige background. The latter is nice, but the fonts aren’t dark enough, and they fade into the background. You can also change the brightness from the application, while you’re reading, to adapt to your current ambient lighting conditions.
Now let’s see how Apple does it with iBooks. Here are two examples of a book page:
The first thing that strikes you is the book metaphor: the pages and shadows that try to give you the impression that you’re reading something other than an ebook. I don’t see this as being essential, and in fact it is a bit distracting. There is a toolbar at the top of the page, and a progress bar at the bottom. You can tap in the center of the page to make these go away, leaving just the title of the book at the top, and a page counter (ie, 10 of 252) at the bottom. In addition, in landscape view, the book shows two “pages”. Again, this looks more like a book, and solves the problem of the Kindle’s wide pages, but this makes for very narrow lines. I don’t find this very readable.
But overall, Apple’s iBooks provides more options for displaying text. Apple gives you ten font sizes, from tiny to huge, and lets you choose from five fonts (Amazon imposes their font). As with the Kindle, you can adjust brightness with a slider. However, you cannot change the color of the page or the font. Apple continues with their book metaphor when you change pages. You can tap and drag a page, and watch a very detailed animation of a page-turn, at whatever speed you want. You can also just tap on the left or right of a page to have it “turn” with a sort of animated wipe. This eye candy is attractive at first, but the “wow” factor quickly gets stale.
Overall, I prefer the iBooks display, mainly for the ability to choose a font and a more precise size. I wish the toolbar would go away, or that there were an option to display it or not. I think different display colors could be useful, if the user is allowed to choose them, rather than just select from the three presets that Amazon offers. I don’t find the page turning animation useful, other than to show of the iPad’s abilities. Both apps display text crisply, because of the iPad’s screen, making reading quite easy.
In the end, the decision to buy a book from one or another will be, in part, fueled by a book’s availability (Amazon has far more books than Apple). But given the choice, at the same price, I’d choose to buy books for iBooks, because the reading experience is more flexible, and the display of text more attractive.