Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

Summary: Here's the lowdown so you can make the best choices in which eBook app software to use on your iPad.

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June of 2010. It has been updated as of July 2011 with current content.

Apple's iPad has arguably become the ultimate eBook reading platform, with several reader apps and stores that are now supported on the device. Here's the lowdown so you can make the best choices in which eBook app software to use on your iPad.

Since the iPad's introduction in early 2010, it has quickly become one of the most popular platforms for reading eBooks, simply due to the variety of content providers which have written applications for the device.

However, the average iPad user may not be aware of features or limitations in the various eReader apps available on the App Store, so I'm going to try to boil this down so that you can make the appropriate choices which best fit your reading lifestyle.

Also Read:

Since this article was originally published in June of 2010, Apple has made some significant changes on its App Store as to how eReader applications can distribute content.

As a result of these changes, many of the applications listed in this article are no longer capable of buying content directly from the application, and can only act in a "Receiver" mode where content is purchased outside the application (such as by using the iPad's built-in Safari browser or browsing using your personal computer) and then synchronized to the eReader program.

For more information on these content distribution changes, please read the following related posts:

Also read:

iBooks

By virtue of being Apple's preferred book-reading platform, iBooks has quickly become one of the most popular e-book reading applications for iOS. As of version 4 of iOS, iBooks runs native on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, giving it some of the largest consumer reach of any e-book reading platform available.

While there is no doubting iBooks' success in terms of its widespread use, compared to all of all the other reader applications we've looked at, it is actually one of the least functional.

Apple designed iBooks to behave and act like a real book, and focused more on the aesthetics and UI than actual App functionality.

One of the main benefits of iBooks is that unlike the two other major e-Book reading applications, Kindle for iPad and Barnes & Noble e-Reader, iBooks supports syncing of DRM-free EPUB and PDF content directly to the iPad thru iTunes.

This is an excellent feature, but essentially locks the user down to using iTunes as the primary data transfer mechanism and thus requires a host PC or Macintosh in order to maintain the library.

Additionally, EPUB and PDF content synced into iBooks' library is not accessible by other e-Reader applications. Generally speaking, every e-Reader app for iPad maintains its own separate database, and are not compatible with each other.

Unfortunately, iBooks doesn't scale very well as the size of your EPUB library increases. While iBooks is perfectly fine for a few dozen or perhaps a hundred or so books purchased from the iBooks Store or synced into iTunes, it is extremely unwieldy once you approach 300+ titles loaded into the database.

In casual testing we uploaded over 1000 full-length EPUB novels to iTunes which we synced to the iPad. We encountered a number of connectivity/timeout issues with the iBooks sync on Windows, plus we discovered that iBooks performs badly when browsing in "Bookshelf" mode when many titles have been loaded into the application.

We found that the less aesthetically-pleasing "list" mode actually works better for browsing a large content library, but as the first-generation iPad only has 256MB of RAM, caching that many titles into the database still causes the app to perform very slowly, so I wouldn't recommend using iBooks for storing your entire personal library in EPUB format.

The iPad 2 is faster, has 512MB of RAM, and Apple has made a number of performance improvements to iBooks since this article was first written, but I'd still say that the iBooks software isn't as sprightly as the others on this list.

The aesthetic focus of iBooks is also in my opinion one of its most serious weaknesses. Much time has been spent by Apple's developers on how the app looks in terms of eye-candy and very little time was spent on how well the application works for actual text reading.

One glaring omission is the lack of color themes, especially a white-on-black inverted text motif. To read text inverted on iBooks, you actually have to go into the iPad Settings applet for Accessibility and choose "White on Black", which changes the color scheme of the entire device globally.

In June of 2010,  Apple added a sepia tone color theme, the ability to full justify text and added support for Baskerville, Cochin, Georgia, Palatino, Times New Roman and Verdana fonts.

Additionally, there is no way to set iBooks to maximize the most use of screen real estate and adjust margins, or to remove the pagination graphic which uses up about a half a centimeter wide of screen space on the right hand side and about a quarter of a centimeter on the top and bottom of the reading area.

It doesn't sound like a lot of wasted space, but when you compare it to the other reader apps we looked it plus the lack of the ability to adjust the margins and have a simple "plain paper" look when reading, it is.

By far iBooks' best asset is the iBooks Store, which has a familiar interface similar to the App Store. It's very easy to search for content and you can get free reading samples for just about every book in the store before you decide to purchase.

Because it is Apple's official eBook reading application, it is also now the only one which offers an integrated bookstore and in-app purchases.

[Next: Amazon Kindle]»

Amazon Kindle for iPad

The Kindle application is something of the red-headed stepchild for eBook reading. For Apple and the iPad platform, it remains something of a necessity, this despite Apple's desire to control as much content as possible, as Amazon still has the widest array of paid ebook content in existence, with well over 950,000 titles in inventory.

However, from a feature perspective, the Kindle software is pretty weak when compared to its hardware counterpart. You can't import other file formats into it (such as PDFs or .MOBI files) and it only works with titles you've already purchased in the Kindle store.

Obviously, if you've made a substantial investment in Kindle content in the past, you've got access to your entire paid library with this app. Over the years I've evaluated several Kindles and purchased content in the store, and all my books appeared in the application instantly, this despite not owning an actual Kindle.

While it does make better use of screen estate than iBooks does, you can't adjust the margins. Unlike iBooks, you also cannot switch the screen font. While the software does have the ability to use different system fonts, they are pre-set by the publisher.

Kindle for iPad has six different font sizes that you can choose from and three different color schemes, including inverted white on black, which is nice to be able to switch quickly to during the evening.

Editor's Note: As of this writing in July of 2011, Kindle for iOS has been altered so that Amazon is now in compliance with Apple's current content distribution policies, and thus eBook content cannot be purchased from directly within the application.

However, content can be easily purchased and remotely synchronized to the application by visiting the Amazon Kindle Store in either the iPad's Safari browser or on any web-enabled device such as your PC.

Barnes & Noble NOOK for iPad

Of all the paid content readers, by far the best one in existence is probably the Barnes & Noble NOOK application.

About the only negative thing I can say about it is that like Kindle for iPad, the application is limited to content already purchased on the B&N website.

Other than that flaw, I love this app. The reading experience is far superior to that of the Kindle application, as it has five customizable themes for different colors of text and background and has eight of the best reading fonts I've seen in any of the apps I looked at, especially when viewed in the "Earl Grey" theme that almost has me convinced I'm looking at e-Ink and not an LCD.

Margins can be adjusted directly from page view to make maximum use of the screen if you'd like.  The content browsing interface is also much more elegant than that of iBooks or Kindle for iPad.

The only thing that would make the B&N application perfect is that if you had the ability to import your own EPUB and Adobe DRM content, which unlike their Android-based Nook reader device, you can't do yet.

Other than that, I would say that if you are shopping around for e-books to read and have to choose between iBooks, Kindle and B&N, and when B&N comes in around the same price per title, then definitely use the NOOK app.

Editor's Note: As of this writing in July of 2011, NOOK for iOS has been altered so that Barnes & Noble is now in compliance with Apple's current content distribution policies, and thus eBook content cannot be purchased from directly within the application.

However, content can be easily purchased and remotely synchronized to the application by visiting the Barnes & Noble NOOK store in either the iPad's Safari browser or on any web-enabled device such as your PC.

[Next: Kobo Reader]»

Kobo Reader

Kobo Reader for iPad is something of a dark horse when compared to the three major paid content eReader apps, but it's extremely polished and very well-designed.

Kobo's main benefit is that it supports many different computing and smartphone platforms, so you can have all of your content available with you wherever you go.

Like Kindle and B&N, your content is stored in Kobobooks.com's cloud, so it doesn't matter if you are using Kobo for iPad, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Palm, PC or Mac.

Kobo also produces its own brand of e-Ink reader, which you can purchase from their web site. It looks like it has some very compelling features, which includes the ability to bluetooth sync Kobo books from your smartphone device.

A version of the Kobo app for iPad was also previously distributed/branded as the Borders eBooks Reader. Kobo is currently offering all Borders customers the ability to transfer their current ebook libraries to their own platform in a simple, painless manner.

The Kobo reader application is one of the nicest looking on the iPad platform, although it isn't nearly as feature rich as B&N's or Stanza from a pure reading perspective. However, the text display is very nice, and you have four scalable fonts to choose from plus a White-on-Black "Night Reading" mode as well as a Sepia tone color scheme.

Margin adjustment is not supported, but otherwise this is an excellent application.

The latest version of Kobo has a social networking features that allow you to show your friends on FaceBook what your current reading list is. Other features include a "Stats" area for showing book reading progress as well as an "awards" area for reading that is similar to the milestone badges that are offered on Foursquare.

As it stands today, we found that pricing on major bestsellers on Kobobooks.com was comparable with the other three major paid content apps, so Kobo should be a good choice if you're the type that wants to read paid content on multiple devices.

Editor's Note: As of this writing in July of 2011, Kobo for iOS has been altered so that it is now in compliance with Apple's current content distribution policies, and thus eBook content cannot be purchased from directly within the application.

However, content can be easily purchased and remotely synchronized to the application by visiting the Kobo Books website in either the iPad's Safari browser or on any web-enabled device such as your PC.

Google Books

While I would generally consider Google Books to be an "Also Ran" in the paid content e-Book reader software category with its eBookstore when compared with Amazon or Barnes & Noble's applications, Google Books does fill a very interesting niche, and that is free access to the massive collection of millions of scanned volumes from its Google Books project.

Because many of the volumes in Google's vast inventory are scanned from classic literature, the application has the ability to view content in its original scanned form, including the illustrations and the original typesetting.

This is both a feature and a weakness, as sometimes you will notice that as a result of the scanning of a particular work of literature, the text and or illustrations may appear warped due to the way the paper may have moved through the scanner device.

However, a lot of the more important volumes were also OCRed, so you can read many of these books as straight-up ebooks just as you do with the other applications featured on this list, simply by selecting "Flowing Text" instead of "Scanned Pages" from the Settings menu.

In addition to being able to switch from scanned and regular ebook mode, Google Books features a "night" mode with inverted white on black text, support for seven different typefaces and a wide variety of text sizes.

Additionally, the application allows you to adjust line spacing, which most of the other applications on this list cannot do. However, margin adjustment is not currently featured in the application.

Another thing I would like to mention is that Google Books is very dependent on cloud connectivity to Google itself. None of the free, scanned volumes get downloaded directly to the iPad.

Instead, they are loaded on the fly from the Internet. If you have fast connectivity this is a good thing, but if you have any traffic issues whatsoever, the app can be pretty sluggish.

Like Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Kobo, Google has also introduced its own eReader device which can synchronize purchased content from Google Books, the iRiver Story HD.

Editor's Note: As of this writing in July of 2011, Google Books for iOS has been altered so that it is now in compliance with Apple's current content distribution policies, and thus eBook content cannot be purchased from directly within the application.

However, content can be easily purchased and remotely synchronized to the application by visiting the Google Books website in either the iPad's Safari browser or on any web-enabled device such as your PC.

[Next: Bluefire Reader]»

Bluefire Reader

Introduced in late 2010, Bluefire fills a very important niche because it is currently the only application on the iPad which will allow you to borrow e-Books from your public library using the Adobe Digital Editions DRM platform, as well as paid content from other platforms which use that format, such as the SONY Reader, the Barnes & Noble NOOK and also the Google eBookstore.

Also Read: The iPad may be the best universal reader thanks to Bluefire

This is particularly important for those with SONY eReader devices because Apple has rejected SONY's app from the App Store, and Bluefire currently seems to be the only way to get your existing DRMed content from that platform onto the iPad.

In addition to Adobe DRM ebooks, the reader supports side-loading of regular EPUB files.

While I would not consider it to be as sophisticated a platform as Stanza, it does have a number of other compelling features, which includes text sizes in 30 different increments, multiple margin layouts, justification toggle, multiple text colors and pre-defined themes, five different font faces, four different page turn options and the all-important "Night mode".

In addition to being able to import your own content into Bluefire, you can also synchronize purchased books from Books a Million, Books on Board, Feedbooks, BookRepublic and Todoebook from within the application.

Editor's Note: As of this writing in July of 2011, Bluefire Reader for iOS has been altered so that it is now in compliance with Apple's current content distribution policies, and thus eBook content cannot be purchased from directly within the application.

Ibis Reader

Ibis Reader is a cool application, but it isn't actually an "App" which you can get on the App Store at all.

Ibis Reader is written in HTML5, and is a combination of a web-based service and a locally cached web application running on the iPad's mobile Safari browser which allows you to read DRM-free EPUB files that you can upload to the ibisreader.com web site, or connect to an OPDS-formatted book repository anywhere on the web, including ones you can create yourself.

Once you've added books to your library, you browse to m.ibisreader.com to install the "App" onto your iPad.

Since Ibis Reader is written in HTML5, it also works on iPhone/iPod Touch and Android devices, and of course standard desktop web browsers for Windows, Mac and Linux such as IE 8, Safari, Chrome and Firefox.

It also runs on RIM OS 6 BlackBerry devices, as well as on the PlayBook.

By default, Ibisreader.com allows you to connect to Feedbooks, the Internet Book Archive, Smashwords and the Pragmatic Bookshelf. But perhaps the coolest aspect is creating your own OPDS repositories, which you can host on free Cloud storage services such as Dropbox.

If you have a very large EPUB collection, this actually is a pretty cool solution, especially if you want to share content with a group of people with different types of devices.

Compared to the other reader apps on this list, the reading features within Ibis Reader are pretty spartan, but the application is maturing quickly. Font size adjustment is supported, and as of the iOS 4 launch, all of the "System" fonts supported on the iPad and iPhone in Mobile Safari can be selected for viewing text, 11 total.

As of this writing, you can't adjust the margins or change to white on black without going into the iPad Accessibility settings, as with iBooks. However, the interface is very clean and simple to use, and the reading experience is actually pretty good when compared to the native apps.

[Next: Stanza]»

Stanza

Of all the applications listed here, Stanza is actually a very mature e-reader app.

Originally launched as Lexcycle Stanza, it was one of the very first applications for iPhone and was listed as Apple's favorite free application in their "App Store Turns 1" list of favorite apps in 2008.

In February 2009, Lexcycle was purchased by Amazon.com, and many thought that the technology would be used in a future version of the Kindle for iOS, but so far, the Stanza application and its development remains separate.

Stanza is by far the most sophisticated e-Reader application for iPad, as it supports not only the open EPUB format but also the legacy Mobipocket, PalmDoc (DOC), Microsoft LIT formats as well as HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word and Rich Text Format (RTF). This built-in compatibility eliminates the need for book conversion to EPUB with applications such as Calibre.

Like iBooks, Stanza can be synced with iTunes, but it also has the capability like Ibis Reader to connect to OPDF repositories as well as Calibre Content Servers. This makes Stanza an excellent solution for storing your entire content library, as you can access it via clouded storage (such as thru Dropbox) and only locally store the books that you want to carry around at any time.

In addition to its connectivity features, Stanza has access to a wide variety of free book feeds, such as Feedbooks, Random House, Harlequin, Project Gutenberg, Munseys, BookGlutton, Mutopia and PanMacmillan.

Currently as of late July 2011, Stanza still has the ability to in-app purchase books from BooksOnBoard, Fictionwise, O'Reilly, All Romance and Smashwords, but we expect this functionality to be removed shortly and become "Synchronize only" like the rest of the applications in this article.

Stanza also has the widest array of text and readability configuration options of any e-Reader app on this list. It has a wide array of font styles and color themes, and many options for text layout.

Stanza has an integrated dictionary and an instantaneous "Night Theme" white-on-black color scheme inversion mode that can be accessed directly from the control bar. It even has the ability to send a Twitter or FaceBook message of what book you're reading and how far you've gotten though it.

If you have lots of content that you've collected over the years, Stanza is definitely a must-have app. There's absolutely no downside, it's free to use and does more than any e-book reader app on this list.

vBookz

VBookz is the odd-man-out of the e-Reader group, as it isn't really an e-book reader per se, it's primarily an interesting text to speech application.

Unlike the other applications on this list, which are all free, vBookz is a paid application which costs $3.99.

Like iBooks, vBookz features a "Bookshelf" UI and also has a in-app "Bookstore" in which you can search and download over 30,000 titles for free from Project Gutenberg.

You can also now upload your own DRM-free EPUB files which the application can read to you.

This application is primarily targeted towards those who enjoy Audible.com books or books on tape, and as the content is public domain or your own EPUB, you can't transfer Adobe Digital Edition commercial content for it to read to you. However, the application is certainly enjoyable, aesthetically pleasing and well-done.

I will note that I've encountered a number of stability issues with the app as it is highly demanding of the iPad hardware, particularly as it uses high-definition voice "fonts" and I've seen it crash if I try to page forward too fast.

Still, vBookz is an extremely interesting and exploitative iPad application, and one which may be good for getting children interested in classic literature and also a useful app for the visually impaired.

Have I missed any aspect of any of these applications or forgotten another major eReader app for iPad? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, iPad, Laptops, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

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71 comments
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  • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

    Excellent article and I agree with all your points.
    kenosha77a
    • Message has been deleted.

      nomorebs
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @nomorebs - I agree with your point but don't understand why you had to finish with an insult.
        john@...
      • Have over 400 books on an Asus Transformer

        And its slick. No delays, no problems. You can organize them by topic or search through them. No limitations like on the iPad. Can have up to a full 1TB drive to work with!

        To cover this you would need an Android tablet that has access to a usb port or at the very least an SD Card reader (48GB for Asus16GB-64GB for Asus 32GB). The versatility and the amount of information available is better than having a highly specialized library at your finger tips.)

        This is the main reason I use an Asus Tablet over the slicker iPad. Like usual, Android proves to be more versatile.
        Uralbas
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @nomorebs I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!
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      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @nomorebs I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!
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  • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

    "iBooks also adds some nifty new features. You can make notes on pages of books, view PDF files, and sync purchases between your iPhone and iPad. " according the review of ifunia iphone column.
    andersonia
    • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

      @andersonia Some of these are available via Google Books as well.
      slickjim
    • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

      @andersonia iBooks is awesome, but I think these guys are missing text to speech in their e-book readers apps. With small screens and users on the go, it just makes sense. <br><br>Kindle and a few other devices have it, so why not apps. There are free SDKs out there which these developers can use. For example, this was recently in TC: <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/03/ispeech-launches-free-mobile-sdk-to-bring-speech-recognition-to-ios-android-apps/" target="_blank" >http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/03/ispeech-launches-free-mobile-sdk-to-bring-speech-recognition-to-ios-android-apps/</a><br>Here's a direct link for all of the developers out there:<br><a href="http://www.ispeech.org/developers" target="_blank" >free text-to-speech sdk</a><br>If you want to see a feature added, just send an email to your favorite e-book app maker and tell them to integrate. As an app developer, I know that developers take their feedback very seriously.
      hahrens@...
  • Seriously?!

    Um... can you stop plugging your *free* book in every article (and now images). Face it, nobody is going to read it. You are losing your professional credibility.
    jznoy-dallas
    • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

      @jznoy-dallas Its not my free book. It's David Gewirtz's
      jperlow
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @jperlow Ironically, David will never read his own book on his own iPad since he has stated that he has has used his device for just one or two days before giving up on it. His wife appears to be more "enlightened" than David, however, and has claimed the device for her own. Ah .. "As the World Turns".
        kenosha77a
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @jperlow

        Did the author of the article really just write a post that said, "Its not my free book. It's David Gewirtz's"

        Instead of disputing the point the poster made about using ZDNET as a means to hawk your own goods, you simply said I am, "hawking my buddies goods" WOW WOW WOW.

        I am done with this site. The authors are horrible. 99% of anything on ZDNET has to do with Operating System wars. Any intelligent and rationale person could care less with a CHOICE another human being makes about their technology needs. Now we have article authors shameless plugging their own goods or a friends and when pointed out the response is , "it was not my stuff" Geesh. Shave that homo beard by the way and look at the camera instead of some "cock my head" and "look goofY" think you have going on. Lose some weight too.
        ctunk
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @ctunk - I didn't want to post anything, but after reading your nonsense-rant, I have to. While I do not disagree nor agree with pushing his buddy's material(you don't even know if Perlow did it on purpose or not), your comment is very offensive. It's very offensive to the author and readers like me. I'm glad you're done with this site. I want to avoid reading your "hide-behind-internet-anonymity-so-I-can-say-anything-offensive" comments, so please tell me where you frequent.
        Yuniverse
      • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

        @jperlow Hope you're not offended by the crap that ctunk was saying. peace.
        Yuniverse
    • RE: Apple iPad Showdown: Battle of the eReader Apps

      @jznoy-dallas No, you just lost YOUR credibility. It's very clear from looking at the image that the name on the cover is NOT "Perlow".
      Snark Shark