eBook Apps: Kindle v iBooks shootout
For the past month I have been able to compare the two major reader applications for the iPad - Amazon’s Kindle app and Apples iBooks. Both have their pros and cons but it’s only after experience that you can really appreciate the differences. At the moment there is no clear winner as this review shows.
There’s little doubt that iBooks wins hands down in appearance and usability. The Kindle iPad application, though serviceable, gives the impression of having being thrown together in a hurry. It is slightly more appealing than the Kindle iPhone version, particularly with its graphic page turns, but it is nonetheless nothing more than a simple text-based system with limited customisation. It has only one font, for instance - a fairly adequate serif style which is readable but unexciting - but does offer six type sizes with the largest ideal for the visually impaired. Kindle is an iPad version of a typical e-ink reader screen which fails to take advantages of the iPad’s graphics capabilities.
iBooks, on the other hand, offers five fonts but only two sizes, small and large. Large is probably not large enough for some people. Of the fonts, Cochin (the one demonstrated by Apple in all the advance publicity for iBooks) is my favorite. It’s a rather fussy serif face, with beautiful italics, but is very readable. Of the remainder, Baskerville, Palatino and Times New Roman complete the quartet of serif faces while Verdana - also a quiet favourite of mine - is the only sans-serif offering. In general, Serif faces are easier to read than sans-serif despite the latter’s seemingly more modern appearance.
Both iBooks and Kindle offer a page header consisting of the book title (plus author in the iBooks landscape mode) while iBooks, in addition, offers a page number at the foot. This is a virtual page number, as in many readers, which changes according to font size and orientation, but is a useful guide to progress. With the Kindle app you have to tap the centre of the screen so see progress, which is shown not in page numbers but as a bar with a “location” number. This is an absolute figure, consistent irrespective of font size or page size and is useful to find a specific location if your sync hasn’t worked.
Further information in both applications is accessed by tapping the screen, ideally in the centre to avoid inadvertent page turns. With the Kindle you get a home button, to take you back to your library, the location bar which shows progress, choice of six type sizes; and settings for brightness and choice of background - white, black or sepia. At the moment, though, you cannot change font style. There is also a Go To button which gives access to the cover, table of contents, beginning and specific location. Finally, there is a syncronisation button (more on that later) and a bookmark button, although bookmarks can also be added by tapping the top right on the page.
The menu functions in iBooks cover the same ground but in a more attractive and usable fashion. At the top of the page are buttons for return to your library and access to the cover and table of contents. There is also a brightness control, a font control (two sizes, five styles) and a search loupe. At the bottom is a dotted Kindle-style progress bar (but without specific location information), virtual page number and, usefully, a note to tell you how many pages you have left in the current chapter. I particularly like this feature.
Both applications offer animated page turns which allow you gradually to turn the page as you are reading so you can see part of the following page underneath - just like in a real book. In both, however, the quick option is to tap the right or left of the page display to go back and forth. In both you can use a swiping motion if you prefer.
In general presentation, iBooks is the more attractive. Surrounding the current page is the edge of a virtual book and to the right is a representation of page edges to give the impression you are flicking through a real book.
Some will think this too fussy and a little condescending and will prefer the more spartan, businesslike appearance of the Kindle screen. But it does make for a conversation piece and adds to iBooks’ wow factor.
Both applications allow portrait or landscape, but only iBooks does landscape well. Even in portrait mode the size of the iPad means that lines are longer than you would expect in most books. A little too wide, in my view. The iPad is big, possibly too big to be a really satisfactory book reader, and portrait mode is as much as you can stomach in one column. In landscape mode, the Kindle application is virtually unusable because the line length is painful to the eye. Try it for a short time and you’ll soon be back to portrait.
Landscape mode in iBooks, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of presentation if you can overlook the graphical fussiness already mentioned. Unlike Kindle, iBooks offers two pages to view and what you see is a fair representation of a small paperback, This means that the individual page width is much more normal and easy on the eye. Of all the options, I find reading in iBooks’ landscape mode by far the easiest and most pleasing. As you look at that landscape screen you think to yourself that this is what e-books really should be.
A dictionary is essential in my view. With iBooks you get a built-in reference dictionary which also gives brief biographical details of notable people. With the Kindle apps you get no dictionary, although one is promised for the next version.
Even if you think you know your language well, there’s always a word you need to look up. I remember being mildly baffled by the work “uxorious” in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. I think Ms. Mantel must have been quite proud of it, because she contrived to use it excessively in the novel. Fortunately, my Sony Reader Touch edition sported a dictionary which assured me that it means “excessive wife loving.” The OED prefers the less ambiguous and less carnal “greatly or excessively fond of one’s wife.” Since then I’ve been vainly attempting to slip the word into casual conversation but have been thwarted at every turn. Maybe uxoricide would be more my cup of tea.
So never think you don’t need a dictionary unless, that is, you have a classical education, are Stephen Fry or Boris Johnson, and know that uxor is Latin for the Old Trouble and Strife.
Both Kindle and iBooks currently fall down on simple organisation of your library. There is no way to allocate your books to folders for easier reference. On the Sony Reader, for instance, you can create libraries or catalogues and drag books to them. Everything stays in the master library but you are able to create smart collections for, say, Books to Read, Reading in Progress and anything else that takes your fancy. I find this extremely useful and hate to have to plough through the entire library looking for my current books or the next couple I have in line.
With iBooks you get limited sorting such as by title, author or category, but it isn’t a great help. We need custom categories.
Of the two applications, Kindle offers more control. Because Kindle books are retained on the Amazon cloud, you can delete books from your device once you’ve read them (you can always download them again if you wish). This way you can keep your reading library trimmed to just those books you have in your immediate sights. The rest can stay on the cloud. This makes for economy of disk space but can occasionally catch you out if you want access to a book while offline, such as while flying.
With iBooks all your purchases are downloaded to your device, just like applications. In time, this will fill take up disk space and, on balance, Amazon’s solution is the more elegant.
Amazon’s excellent Whispersync has shown the way in synchronisation of books. Once you’ve experienced this you will not want to go back to a standalone book system. At the moment Amazon offer applications for Mac and Windows desktops, iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry mobiles. You can buy one library of books but read at will on as many of these devices as you fancy. Whispersync takes care of remembering your page number, bookmarks, notes and, of course, available books. Connection to the internet is essential, of course, and if you are planning to read alternately on your iPhone and iPad it’s probably a good idea go for the 3G iPad. Otherwise you will be frequently caught out.
At the moment there is no synchronisation option for iBooks but it is coming with iOS4 and iBooks for iPhone. I am not sure of the mechanics, but I assume it will be some form of cloud sync and not sync via iTunes or wifi. If Apple do not include 3G cloud syncing I am afraid they will lose out massively to Kindle. Even if it is cloud sync as expected, it will be restricted initially to the iOS devices and will be limited in comparison with Kindle. If you are not 100 percent Apple and use a Windows computer or an Android or BlackBerry mobile, you’re better sticking with Amazon.
As an iPhone and iPad user you have the choice of which bookstore to use as well as your preference for a book reader application. Your decision is based on the availability of the titles you choose, the easy of purchasing and, of course, cost.
At the moment, without a doubt, Amazon has the most extensive library and choice over a wide range of titles. If a book is available in digital format it is likely to be there in the Kindle store. Sometimes, though, books on display are denied to you if you are not based in the USA, so frustrations can occur. This is something to do with licensing, I understand.
The iBookstore does have a wealth of free classic material which is attractive and well packaged. I suspect the no-charge offer is a loss leader until the store becomes established, so I’m stocking up while the good times last. Amazon tend to charge for everything, even rehashes of free Gutenberg stuff, although the costs are usually modest at between one and two dollars a volume.
Both iBooks and Kindle make the buying process easy. Apple have the edge with in-app, one-click purchasing. Kindle takes you to Safari and the old familiar Amazon web site. However, choosing is easy and you have the option to decide to which device you want to download - iPhone, iPad, Mac or whatever. As mentioned earlier, Kindle keeps all your books on the cloud, so you can easily download to other devices when you need them.
An unscientific review of prices seems to prove that the Kindle Store undercuts the iBookStore by a significant margin. It’s difficult to be sure whether this advantage will be maintained because Kindle readers are still having to use the US store, priced in dollars, while the UK iBookstore priced in pounds.
Taking Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, mentioned above, iBooks will ask you for £6.99 while Amazon offers the same book for $5.21 (£3.52) - half price. It’s the same story with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which is £6.99 at iBooks and $5.78 (£3.91) in iBooks. Sam Bourne’s The Chosen One is £5.49 at iBooks and $5.77 (£3.90) at the Kindle Store.
So, if you are based in the UK, my current advice would be to stock up on free iBooks classics but buy your content from Amazon. No doubt things will change when we get a UK-priced Kindle store and we see direct pound-for-pound comparisons.
In terms of ease of reading and eye comfort I now much prefer the iBooks application to Kindle’s. Apple has set a high standard and I have little doubt that most people will prefer the Apple user interface. I imagine Kindle will catch up and I suspect it will be one of those cases where prime competitors continually leapfrog one another with features and choices. It’s early days yet, both for electronic books in general and synchronisation in particular, so we have a lot to look forward to.
But we shouldn’t forget there is a strong contender to the iPad: It’s called iPhone or iPod Touch. Contrary to the views of the naysayers, who probably haven’t really tried to read a book on the iPhone, the smaller screen is eminently readable. In many circumstances I prefer the small phone format.
Keen photographers often remark that the best camera in the world is the one you have in your pocket. The heavy SLR on its tripod might well produce better pictures, but it isn’t in your pocket. Similarly, the iPad - or even a Sony Reader - is not always in your pocket. You have to make a conscious decision to take it out with you, and that generally means carrying a bag.
Your phone, on the other hand, probably goes with you everywhere and is always available. Reading on an iPhone is absolutely no hardship and I actually like the experience. In certain situations such as on a crowded train or at a restaurant table, the iPhone is more practical and less conspicuous than an iPad or, even, a Sony Reader. It’s particularly useful if you are somewhere where you wouldn’t want to be seen reading from a very expensive toy.
That’s why synchronisation is so important. You need your books with you wherever you are and you need to be able to read a few pages on your iPhone and then find your place marked on the iPad when you return home.
Since I started reading ebooks on my first Sony, under two years ago, the market has expanded dramatically and the facilities and options are infinitely greater. The Sony, which I originally thought was wonderful, is let down by a cludgy purchasing and book management system which is totally overshadowed by Kindle and iBooks.
Synchronisation is king and I would not now buy any books that I could not read on several different platforms. At the very least I expect iPad and iPhone synchronisation to fit in with my daily life.
While Amazon currently has the most choice at the lowest price - and the greatest flexibility in synchronisation - iBooks has the better reader application. Kindle, however, adds something iBooks cannot yet offer and that is the ability to read your books on an e-ink screen, the Kindle device itself.
A downside for Amazon is that they use proprietary copy protection so you are unlikely ever to be able to move your library outside the Kindle eco-system. Apple, on the other hand, has opted for the increasingly popular and would-be universal ePub format. At the moment you are not going to be able to transfer your Apple purchases to another system, but there is probably more chance of that in the future with Apple than with Amazon.
As iPad and iPhone users we are lucky to be able to take the best from both worlds (and, even, add the new Barnes & Noble reader and system if we feel adventurous). It’s a good position to be in and will ensure that both Amazon and Apple are kept on their toes and offer real competition, despite the best efforts of the book publishers to control prices.