Kindle v. iPad, For Bookies

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.

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13 Responses to Kindle v. iPad, For Bookies

  1. debooker says:

    Thank you. I appreciate your insight and comments. I don’t own either and have been considering one or the other. Cost is certainly a consideration, especially with the newer $139 version. Thank you.

  2. Bob Vardeman says:

    If the contrast is too great on the iPad as an e-book reader, change the background to sepia. Or lower the intensity.

    Kindle is quickly becoming a commodity item but the iPad bridges needs–sorta laptop, sorta e-reader. The iPad’s functionality is greater but if all you want is to read e-books, the Kindle is superior, if only because of price. Sort of an apples and oranges. Both are fruit but one is citrus.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Very good review. This is the sort of thing we do at Nokia, where I work. Unfortunately, we are losing ground to Apple every day, so we gnash our teeth a lot when we read things like this post. (why, oh why didn’t we get there first?)

    I am loving my Kindle that I got when I was in the US. I’m reading Sister Carrie now — only cost me $3 to download.

    I can’t get an iPad because I work at Nokia. Apple is our mortal enemy. I use an N900 (runs a type of Linux platform) for a mini-computer/smartphone.

  4. Tim Ward says:

    I’m glad to see we agree. I need the Kindle for its portability of pdf and ebooks, as well as the writing helps of having a dictionary and wikipedia access. Since money is an issue, getting the Kindle first, and waiting for the ipad price to drop sounds like a good plan.

  5. pinkpelican says:

    I know that the backlit screen option has it’s issues … hard on the eyes, hard on the battery.

    What I’d REALLY like to see is an ereader that allows you to switch between the daytime/eInk format and a backlit format, for those times when you want to read in bed with the light off so you don’t disturb your sleeping partner.

    I’ve heard there are light attachments for things like Kindle. Have you seen such accessories and are they worth the effort?

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Yes. No.

      Sorry to be so abrupt.

      There are “Itty Bitty Book Lights” made especially for Kindle, but they’re too much trouble, and too precious by half. If I tried to use one, my wife would start laughing and be unable to stop. A sleepy girlfriend you nevertheless want to impress? Forget it!

      To those who complain about not being able to use their Kindles in the dark, I try to remind that this is also the nature of a *genuine printed book*. Horrors!

      • Pink Pelican says:

        Yep, the current non-backlit print book is the reason I’d love to have a way to read backlit content. The husband says, “Come to bed, I can’t sleep if you’re not here.”

        “I’m not sleepy yet, I’ll just read.”

        “Turn off the light, I can’t sleep with it on.”

        “I’m not SLEEPY yet. I’ll go site in the other room & read.”

        “I can’t SLEEP if you’re not HERE.”

        ARRGGGHHH!

        Although, maybe if I get a Kindle, and then a Kindle app for my droid, I can read in bed on my phone. Ruin my eyes, but preserve the peace …

        LOL!

        • Tom Dupree says:

          P.S. on 9/1/13, three years later: of course, now there is the Kindle Paperwhite, which can be read either in bright sunlight OR the dark; even on a train trip that goes through dark tunnels, you never miss a word.

  6. Dan Moran says:

    I bought a Windows 7 tablet the other day — $1100, 4 pounds. It’s as close to single-device heaven as you can get (and that’s fairly close, to tell the truth.) It handles movies beautifully, has a pretty good keyboard, is a great comics reader (I finally finished Marvel’s “Civil War” because of this computer), is a first rate book reader, you can write on it, and you can program on it — I’ve got SQL Server and IIS installed on it. It boots slowly by comparison with some devices, but that’s OK — I don’t boot it that often; mostly I just put it into standby, and then it’s only a few seconds to restore.

    4 GB RAM, 320GB hard drive, every port imaginable. It subsumes, in 4 pounds, what I’d use a Kindle, iPad, and desktop computer for.

    I won’t say I don’t want a light, long-battery device just for media consumption, because I do. But having the tablet makes it easier to wait to get it.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Dan, sounds like all you need is a cheapo Kindle 3 [for book/mag-reading Heft], and you’re set: your new tab must be *monstrous* cool!

  7. Mary says:

    Tom, great review. I really love my iPad. I’m on a trip right now & left my laptop at home to see if I would miss it. I don’t. So far I’ve used my iPad to check mail, read the newspaper, listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” download a new book to read, show friends some photos, play a couple of games, listen to a radio station 2,000 miles away, order a wedding gift and have it delivered, and I’ve only been away two days. And I didn’t have to take it out of my purse to go through security at the airport. I brought a lightweight keyboard with me, though. For longer messages like this one, it’s handy. I’ve never had a Kindle, though, so I can’t compare. I won’t be leaving home without it.

  8. Chuck says:

    I’ve used both an iPad and a Kindle, and like people have said, there really is no comparing the two. If you want to read e-books, get a kindle, if you want an iPhone that’s the size of platter, and does pretty much the same things, get an iPad. I’m buying the new Kindle now, because it would be a lifesaver for me as a student. I can download most of my school textbooks via kindle, and other books relating to my area of study and be able to read and annotate them much easier. Having the dictionary and wikipedia attached pretty much makes it the perfect device for getting work done without getting distracted (and this is a big problem for someone like me who has intense ADHD). I think people are starting to value dedicated devices more now that they’ve finished ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the all-in-one devices that are very impressive, but not always the best tool for the job.

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