So Linda looks up from the paper one day and says, “We need to get an iPad.” Now she’s no early adopter. But her career is in media research, and she works for a small startup that uses proprietary technology to evaluate unconscious reactions to outside stimuli, like television programs and commercials. We pretty much skipped the smart-phone wave over carriers; we’ll get iPhones whenever Verizon can offer them. But she still needs to know how people are interacting with new media. What can apps do? How do kids multitask these days? What mundane jobs are people outsourcing to their digital pals, like they did with addition and multiplication a generation ago?
So, we bought an iPad, and we’ve spent the last few days playing with it, enough to get a feel for the device but not enough to become experts. We’ve used Kindles for going on two years now. (We own both a Kindle 1, which Linda uses, and a Kindle 2 for me.) So how do they stack up? Will we throw the Kindles away? Here’s my initial comparison based on the utility most important to me, the devices’ usefulness as e-readers, in several categories:
RAZZLE-DAZZLE. The iPad wins, hands down. The bright, colorful, touch-responsive screen is just gorgeous. Portrait / landscape orientation follows you as you turn the device (Kindle can switch orientation too, but you have to give a manual command). iPad use is intuitive, though a full owner’s manual is built in digitally. Kindle can also play audio books and has a built-in digital announcer, but he sounds like the robot on LOST IN SPACE: understandable, but, well, robotic. The iPad provides digital sound more like you’re used to. The virtual keyboard, there when you want it and not when you don’t (just like David Warner’s desk in TRON!), is surprisingly easy to use, though I wouldn’t want to have to type this entire piece that way. Winner: iPad, not even breathing hard.
SCREEN DISPLAY. The iPad is backlit, like a computer screen. That means you can read in the dark! It also means that in bright sunlight, the iPad display looks like your laptop screen: difficult to impossible to see. (Amazon is running TV spots that parody the famous Corona “lounge chair” beach commercials. The two sunbathers are using their Kindles happily; iPads would be useless.) Book text on the iPad is extremely sharp black against white, with second or third colors added to many books for cosmetic reasons. Kindle is grayscale only, against an off-white field. It will take lots of use to make sure, but for books, I’d rather spend hour upon hour looking at the grayscale; the eyes don’t get so tired so fast. For newspapers or multimedia, though, the iPad’s size and resolution give it the nod. NIXONLAND by Rick Pearlstein has just gone on sale in a multimedia version specifically for tablets. I read this fine book when it first came out, and I will certainly give the format a try on a book that I haven’t read. I watched the first five minutes of DIRTY HARRY, streamed from Netflix, and the landscape-oriented iPad screen is plenty big enough, when held close enough, to enjoy a widescreen movie. You can rent, or even buy, flicks in hi-def from Apple, so this screen must rock even harder than I realize. Books: Kindle. Anything else: iPad.
BATTERY LIFE. The iPad’s current Achilles heel. We can see the battery deplete before our eyes. There is an “airplane mode,” which presumably reduces the drain by cutting off wireless access (we are connecting to the Net through our own secure router but have the option of using 3G cellular; we’ll wait and see just how we use it), but that defeats much of the multi-use purpose; nearly everything cool about the iPad requires an active wireless connection. I have read that Apple claims 10 hours – it’s certainly far less than that in wireless mode. Our Kindle 2 can last for two weeks with wireless disengaged, even in “sleep mode” when you forget to turn it off. That’s because Kindle rarely needs the “Whispernet” to function just fine. That’s only for searching the Kindle store and downloading your stuff. The rest of the time, the wireless function is unnecessary. For plane trips, the iPad can get you coast to coast without recharging. The Kindle can get you to Australia and back. Kindle wins easily.
HEFT. Kindle is smaller and lighter. (An even smaller and cheaper version has just been announced, starting at $139 for wi-fi only.) It’s easier to read using only one hand (the other one can reach for your Corona) than with an actual paperback. With hardcovers, forget it: I’d much prefer reading a long book, like Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME, on my Kindle. The iPad requires two hands (though turning the page with a finger-swipe is so much like using a real book that you have to smile the first time it happens), unless it’s in a sleeve that can let it rest on an angle. It’s heavier and clunkier. There’s a Kindle model with a larger screen, similar to the iPad, but I’m talking about my garden-variety Kindle 2. Round to Kindle.
ACCESS TO SOFTWARE. The Kindle store is far larger than Apple’s iBooks. Furthermore, there are free Kindle apps for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, and more. Downloading the Kindle for iPad app gave me instant iPad access to all the books Linda and I have already purchased or gotten free (nearly two million public-domain books are available for Kindle at no charge, as they also are for most other devices), the same access we have on each Kindle. In other words, if you buy an e-book from Amazon, you can read it on a variety of devices. With iBooks, as far as I can tell, you’re limited to Apple’s own stuff. There is no price advantage on bestsellers: the publishers who signed on with Apple’s “agency” model are selling newer e-books for $13-$15, sometimes even more than the physical paperback. Random House, the main holdout, still offers new bestsellers for $9.99 through its “wholesale” model – or, more accurately, the bookseller does, and as far as I can tell, Apple is matching Amazon’s prices. Advantage: Kindle.
CUTTING TO THE CHASE. The Kindle leans in and does one great thing: it makes it easy, convenient and cheap to read words. But if you want something more multi-purpose, you’re asking for something Kindle can’t do. The iPad’s very versatility hobbles it in some regards, but which device you choose absolutely depends on how you’re going to spend your time. If your main objective is to read or hear e-words, Kindle is the winner — and it’s still the best dedicated e-reader by far, even with all its new competitors, especially since we’re getting into mass-market pricing territory. $139 (for a new-generation, wi-fi-only Kindle) isn’t all that far from $99, and that’s where Santa tends to get involved. But if you want something closer to your laptop or netbook, something in between it and an e-reader, I have to recommend iPad – and they still cost hundreds of dollars. If money were no object, the solution would be simple: buy both a Kindle and an iPad. Download the Kindle for iPad app. Buy your books from the Kindle store, and take the Kindle with you on plane trips, or to the beach. Use the iPad to read those same books (or pick up where you left off on the Kindle) at home, indoors, especially late at night. However, if I have to choose only one, I still say the best value, and most proven performance, comes from the non-sexy, black-and-white, bookish, Kindle.
9/6/13: Must report that since this piece was posted in 2010, Amazon has come up with an inexpensive greyscale reading device called the Kindle Paperwhite, which solves the last remaining problem. It automatically adjusts for bright sunlight or a pitch-black room: you can use it anywhere, anytime. (Big fun in a train going through tunnels…you never lose focus!) That’s my default e-reader now and I take it everywhere. But for more sophisticated uses, it’s still the iPad.