The iPad clearly threatens gadgets like netbook computers and smartphones. But just how does it fare against that marvel of tried and true technology, the book? Pretty well, in fact. Though it's not without flaws, the experience of reading on the iPad is positive enough to earn the device yet another solid passing grade on its report card of features.
Back in May 2009, before I took the dive to purchase a Kindle 2, I first tried to see how well I might adapt to digital reading. I purchased a few books with the Kindle app for iPhone and read them.
My opinion was mixed: I liked that my current book was always in my pocket on the iPhone, I liked that it was easy to read one-handed in bed, and I liked that I was undeniably reading more books than I had when I stuck to the tree-killing kind. I didn't love reading on the iPhone's backlit screen, but I assumed the Kindle's e-ink screen would resolve that issue, so I finally bought one with confidence. Less than a year later, of course, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad.
I wondered then whether the iPad could truly compete as an e-book reader, and became cautiously optimistic about its chances when further details were released. Now, after more than a month with the device, I'm confident in declaring that it makes a very compelling e-reader, although it does exhibit a few obvious and not-so-obvious weaknesses.
The most immediately apparent knock against the iPad as a device for reading is its weight. Now, 1.5 pounds (or 1.6 for the 3G-enabled version) doesn't sound like much. But given that the iPad's almost all screen, you're forced to hold it by the edges, and that pound and a half can start to put a lot of strain on your fingertips.
The Kindle, on the other hand, weighs just 10.2 ounces: I can comfortably hold it with one hand for hours. I can hold the iPad with one hand, usually with my thumb on the lower side edge, and my pinky on the bottom, with the middle three fingers providing its back support, but my hands definitely start to "feel it" much more than they do with the Kindle. Generally, for extended reading time, I'll prop the iPad up somehow, whether on my folded-over leg, a tabletop, or the side of my pillow.
Pillow time, of course, is one area where the iPad (quite literally) shines. The Kindle's e-ink display, like the paper books it replicates, requires a book light for bedtime reading. The iPad's backlit display means never needing to own another book light again. But one of e-ink's key selling points is precisely its lack of a bright, backlit display. Indeed, I feared the eye-fatigue ramifications of reading on the iPad before mine arrived.
While I wish the iPad's display packed a few more pixels per inch (it boasts 132 ppi, compared to the iPhone's 163 ppi), I find that, just as the Kindle does, the device really fades away after a few pages. Most notably, I'm not experiencing the eye-fatigue I expected, and which I actually felt when I read those first ebooks on my iPhone. I now believe that was more the fault of the tinier text on the iPhone's smaller screen, rather than its backlighting.
One weakness that's not initially apparent is the iPad's infamous proclivity for attracting fingerprints. Those smudges, which I normally don't even notice unless the iPad is asleep, become more apparent (and annoying) when they consistently overlap the lines of text you're reading in a digital book. Luckily, a quick wipe with any nearby fabric resolves that issue pretty quickly.
Once you've found a comfortable position to hold the iPad, and you've confirmed that the screen isn't bothersome to your eyes during extended reading jags, it's time to curl up with your ebook.
Given the iPad's access to the App Store, it's nice that users aren't limited to just Apple's own iBooks app for reading. There are a handful of other options, but iBooks and Amazon's Kindle app are probably the two most prominent. Since my iPad arrived, I've read ten books between the two apps.
I found the book-reading experience within iBooks decent, but not exceptional. iBooks does some things far better than the Kindle app, but it also includes some simply egregious flaws.
While both iBooks and the Kindle app let you turn pages quickly by tapping on the edge of the screen, each also offers a virtual page-turning animation. Though I tend to leave the Kindle app's preference for that animation turned off, I find the iBooks page turn smooth and natural, though it's entirely superfluous, I enjoy the visual effect. With paper books, I tend to curl my finger under the next page and I end up recreating that gesture in iBooks; since the page curls precisely where you "grab" it, the effect is pretty slick. In both apps, you can also turn back a page from anywhere on the screen just by swiping to the right, which is a nice touch.
Although some find iBooks's font options too limited, I like the selection offered, particularly Palatino. Amazon's Kindle app doesn't let you customise anything but font-size; the publisher chooses the font itself. Another iBooks perk is its in-app ability to look up words with a built-in dictionary; the Kindle itself offers that feature (albeit with clumsier cursor navigation), but oddly the Kindle app for the iPad does not.