Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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eBook Smackdown: iPad vs. Kindle

When the iPad was presented at its San Francisco launch event on January 28th, Steve Jobs spent a significant amount of time explaining how well the device would serve as an eBook reader. He showed the iBook's reader application and iBookstore and laid down the gauntlet before Amazon and its beloved Kindle device. Almost immediately after, criticism came rushing forth that the iPad could never beat the Kindle for book reading. The curious part of that criticism is that virtually no one offering it had actually used the iPad yet.

A few weeks later, on April 3, the iPad was released for sale in the United States. I bought one on that day and in the few additional weeks that have elapsed, I've given quite a workout to most of its capabilities, including its eBook features. I've also spent some time with the Kindle, albeit a first-generation model, to see how it actually compares to the iPad. I had some expectations going in, but I came away with conclusions about each device that were more scenario-based than absolute. I present my findings to you here.

Vital Statistics
Let's start with an inventory of each device's underlying technology. The iPad has a color, backlit LCD screen and an on-screen keyboard. It has a battery which, on a full charge, lasts anywhere from 6-10 hours. The Kindle offers a monochrome, reflective E Ink display, a physical keyboard and a battery that on my first-gen loaner unit can go up to a week between charges (Amazon claims the battery on the Kindle 2 can last up to 2 weeks on a single charge).

The Kindle connects to Amazon's Kindle Store using a 3G modem (the technology and network vary depending on the model) that incurs no airtime service charges whatsoever. The iPad units that are on-sale today work over WiFi only. 3G-equipped models will be on sale shortly and will command a $130 premium over their WiFi-only counterparts. 3G service on the iPad, in the U.S. from AT&T, will be fee-based, with a 250MB plan at $14.99 per month and an unlimited plan at $29.99. No contract is required for 3G service.

All these tech specs aside, I think a more useful observation is that the iPad is a multi-purpose Internet-connected entertainment device, while the Kindle is a dedicated reading device. The question is whether those differences in design and intended use create a clear-cut winner for reading electronic publications. Let's take a look at each device, in isolation, now.

To me, what's most innovative about the Kindle is its E Ink display. E Ink really looks like ink on a sheet of paper. It requires no backlight, it's fully visible in direct sunlight and it causes almost none of the eyestrain that LCD-based computer display technology (like that used on the iPad) does. It's really versatile in an all-around way. Forgive me if this sounds precious, but reading on it is really a joy. In fact, it's a genuinely relaxing experience.

Through the Kindle Store, Amazon allows users to download books (including audio books), magazines, newspapers and blog feeds. Books and magazines can be purchased either on a single-issue basis or as an annual subscription. Books, of course, are purchased singly. Oddly, blogs are not free, but instead carry a monthly subscription fee, typically $1.99. To me this is ludicrous, but I suppose the free 3G service is partially to blame. Books and magazine issues download quickly. Magazine and blog subscriptions cause new issues or posts to be pushed to your device on an automated basis. Available blogs include 9000-odd feeds that Amazon offers on the Kindle Store; unless I missed something, arbitrary RSS feeds are not supported (though there are third party workarounds to this limitation).

The shopping experience is integrated well, has a huge selection, and offers certain graphical perks. For example, magazine and newspaper logos are displayed in menus, and book cover thumbnails appear as well. A simple search mechanism is provided and text entry through the physical keyboard is relatively painless. It's very easy and straightforward to enter the store, find something you like and start reading it quickly. If you know what you're looking for, it's even faster. Given Kindle's high portability, very reliable battery, instant-on capability and highly integrated content acquisition, it makes reading on whim, and in random spurts of downtime, very attractive.

The Kindle's home screen lists all of your publications, and easily lets you select one, then start reading it. Once opened, publications display in crisp, attractive text that is adjustable in size. "Turning" pages is achieved through buttons dedicated to the task. Notes can be recorded, bookmarks can be saved and pages can be saved as clippings. I am not an avid book reader, and yet I found the Kindle made it really fun, convenient and soothing to read. There's something about the easy access to the material and the simplicity of the display that makes the Kindle seduce you into chilling out and reading page after page.

On the other hand, the Kindle has an awkward navigation interface. While menus are displayed clearly on the screen, the method of selecting menu items is tricky: alongside the right-hand edge of the main display is a thin column that acts as a second display. It has a white background, and a scrollable silver cursor that is moved up or down through the use of the device's scroll wheel. Picking a menu item on the main display involves scrolling the silver cursor to a position parallel to that menu item and pushing the scroll wheel in. This navigation technique creates a disconnect, literally. You don't really click on a selection so much as you gesture toward it. I got used to this technique quickly, but I didn't love it. It definitely created a kind of anxiety in me, making me feel the need to speed through menus and get to my destination document quickly. Once there, I could calm down and relax.

Books are great on the Kindle. Magazines and newspapers much less so. I found the rendering of photographs, and even illustrations, to be unacceptably crude. For this reason, I expect that reading textbooks on the Kindle may leave students wanting. I found that the original flow and layout of any publication was sacrificed on the Kindle. In effect, browsing a magazine or newspaper was almost impossible. Reading the text of individual articles was enjoyable, but having to read this way made the whole experience much more "a la carte" than cohesive and thematic between articles. I imagine that for academic journals this is ideal, but for consumer publications it imposes a stripped-down, low-fidelity experience that evokes a sense of deprivation.

In general, the Kindle is great for reading text. For just about anything else, especially activity that involves exploratory browsing, meandering and short-attention-span reading, it presents a real barrier to entry and adoption. Avid book readers will enjoy the Kindle (if they're not already). It's a great device for losing oneself in a book over long sittings. Multitaskers who are more interested in periodicals, be they online or off, will like it much less, as they will find compromise, and even sacrifice, to be palpable.

The iPad is a very different device from the Kindle. While the Kindle is oriented to pages of text, the iPad orbits around applications and their interfaces. Be it the pinch and zoom experience in the browser, the rich media features that augment content on news and weather sites, or the ability to interact with social networking services like Twitter, the iPad is versatile. While it shares a slate-like form factor with the Kindle, it's effectively an elegant personal computer. One of its many features is the iBook application and integration of the iBookstore. But it's a multi-purpose device. That turns out to be good and bad, depending on what you're reading.

The iBookstore is great for browsing. Its color, rich animation-laden user interface make it possible to shop for books, rather than merely search and acquire them. Unfortunately, its selection is rather sparse at the moment. If you're looking for a New York Times bestseller, or other popular titles, you should be OK. If you want to read something more specialized, it's much harder.

Unlike the awkward navigation interface of the Kindle, the iPad offers a nearly flawless touch-screen interface that seduces the user into tinkering and kibitzing every bit as much as the Kindle lulls you into a deep, concentrated read. It's a dynamic and interactive device, whereas the Kindle is static and passive.

The iBook reader is slick and fun. Use the iPad in landscape mode and you can read the book in 2-up (left/right 2-page) display; use it in portrait mode and you can read one page at a time. Rather than clicking a hardware button to turn pages, you simply drag and wipe from right-to-left to flip the single or right-hand page. The page actually travels through an animated path as it would in a physical book. The intuitiveness of the interface is uncanny. The reader also accommodates saving of bookmarks, searching of the text, and the ability to highlight a word and look it up in a dictionary.

Pages display brightly and clearly. They're easy to read. But the backlight and the glare made me less comfortable than I was with the Kindle. The knowledge that completely different applications (including the Web and email and Twitter) were just a few taps away made me antsy and very tempted to task-switch. The knowledge that battery life is an issue created subtle discomfort.

If the Kindle makes you feel like you're in a library reading room, then the iPad makes you feel, at best, like you're under fluorescent lights at a Barnes and Noble or Borders store. If you're lucky, you'd be on a couch or at a reading table in the store, but you might also be standing up, in the aisles. Clearly, I didn't find this conducive to focused and sustained reading. But that may have more to do with my own tendency to read periodicals far more than books. And, truth be known, the book reading experience, when not explicitly compared to Kindle's, was still pleasant.

It is also important to point out that Kindle Store-sourced books can be read on the iPad through a Kindle reader application, from Amazon, specific to the device. This offered a less rich experience than the iBooks reader, but it was completely adequate. Despite the Kindle brand of the reader, however, it offered little in terms of simulating the reading experience on its namesake device.

When it comes to periodicals, the iPad wins hands down. Magazines, even if merely scanned images of their print editions, read on the iPad in a way that felt similar to reading hard copy. The full color display, touch navigation and even the ability to render advertisements in their full glory makes the iPad a great way to read through any piece of work that is measured in pages, rather than chapters.

There are many ways to get magazines and newspapers onto the iPad, including the Zinio reader, and publication-specific applications like those from the Wall Street Journal and Popular Science. The New York Times' free Editors' Choice application offers a Times Reader-like interface to a subset of content from the Gray Lady. The completely Web-based but iPad-optimized Times Skimmer site works well too. Even conventional Web sites themselves can be read much like magazines, given the iPad's ability to zoom in on the text and crop out advertisements on the margins.

While the Kindle does have an experimental Web browser, it reminded me a lot of early mobile phone browsers, only in a larger size. For text-heavy sites with simple layout, it works fine. For just about anything else, it becomes more trouble than it's worth. And given the way magazine articles make me think of things I want to look up online, I think that's a real liability for the Kindle.

Summing Up
What I came to realize is that the Kindle isn't so much a computer or even an Internet device as it is a printer. While it doesn't use physical paper, it still renders its content a page at a time, just like a laser printer does, and its output appears strikingly similar. You can read the rendered text, but you can't interact with it in any way. That's why the navigation requires a separate cursor display area. And because of the page-oriented rendering behavior, turning pages causes a flash on the display and requires a sometimes long pause before the next page is rendered.

The good side of this is that once the page is generated, no battery power is required to display it. That makes for great battery life, optimal viewing under most lighting conditions (as long as there is some light) and low-eyestrain, text-centric display of content. The Kindle is highly portable, has an excellent selection in its store and is refreshingly distraction-free. All of this is ideal for reading books. And iPad doesn't offer any of it.

What iPad does offer is versatility, variety, richness and luxury. It's flush with accoutrements even if it's low on focused, sustained text display. That makes it inferior to the Kindle for book reading. But that also makes it better than the Kindle for almost everything else. As such, and given that its book reading experience is still decent (even if not superior), I think the iPad will give Kindle a run for its money. True book lovers, and people on a budget, will want the Kindle. People with a robust amount of discretionary income may want both devices. Everyone else who is interested in a slate form factor e-reading device, especially if they also wish to have leisure-friendly Internet access, will likely choose the iPad exclusively.

One thing is for sure: iPad has reduced Kindle's market, and may have shifted its mass market potential to a mere niche play. If Amazon is smart, it will improve its iPad-based Kindle reader app significantly. It can then leverage the iPad channel as a significant market for the Kindle Store. After all, selling the eBooks themselves is what Amazon should care most about.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 04/22/2010

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