iPad Experience: Can the iPad replace ebook readers?

One of the aspects of the Apple iPad that intrigued me most was the capability for it to serve as an ebook reader. Three ebook clients are available now on the iPad, including iBooks, Amazon, and Kobo. Check out some thoughts on each one and see which ones I use today.

Special Report: Apple iPad

One of the first things I did when my iPad arrived was load up the iBooks and Amazon Kindle applications. I then saw yesterday that Kobo launched their ebook application and am now just waiting to see an iPad-optimized Barnes & Noble eReader client appear. I have a B&N nook and Sony Reader 505 (the old one), but have to honestly say the iPad may have turned these into devices to give away to family and friends. The major strengths of the iPad are the multiple client support and integrated, controllable backlight while the weaknesses are the lack of eInk, lack of Adobe Digital Editions support (for those free library books), and weight in your hand compared to dedicated ebook devices. I captured screenshots of the three ebook applications currently on my iPad starting on this page of the iPad Experience Series image gallery and present you with some thoughts on these three below. Do you think the iPad can replace your dedicated ebook reader?

Image Gallery:Check out iBooks, Kindle, and Kobo on the Apple iPad to see how they stack up.
Image Gallery: Winnie the Pooh on the iPad
Image Gallery: Kobo library

I have been using ebook readers for many years, starting with my Palm and Pocket PC devices and then moving on to add dedicated eInk display devices to the mix. I am a big fan of my B&N nook with the only real issue being the lack of a backlight. The nook supports content from multiple sources such as the public library, Kobo, and Fictionwise while also supporting the vast Barnes & Noble store. It doesn't support Kindle titles and I have purchased a few over the years. Apple rolled out their new iBooks client with the iPad, but currently these books can only be read on the iPad so purchasing them is not a very attractive option at the moment. While I am not sure the iPad will kill all ebook sales, I do think that many gadget enthusiasts may find it perfectly acceptable and with ebook reader adoption still being quite low the iPad may actually encourage ebook reading like the iPhone did with mobile applications and web surfing on the go. Let's take a look at three compelling clients currently available on the iPad.

Apple iBooks

When you load up the Apple iBooks application (iTunes link) you will find that Winnie the Pooh is included as a demonstration of the ebook reader application. You can check out this Apple video of iBooks in action too. A bonus that I found and did not expect is that the iBooks application actually supports DRM-free EPUB formatted books so I loaded up a couple free titles written by Cory Doctorow that I found on the Feedbooks website since I know that he likes the iPad so much ;) Actually, I enjoy his books and wanted to see how they worked on the iPad in iBooks. You won't be able to load up public library content or other EPUB content from ebook providers that your purchase with DRM protection though.

Apple's client is visually one of the best I have ever seen in an ebook reader as they model the physical book experience with a wooden bookshelf background, physical page dimensions shown on the edges to give you a sense of depth, two page real book looking layout in landscape mode with a shadowed center spine area, and page turning animations. When you launch iBooks in landscape mode it will be clear to you that you are reading an ebook while other ebook applications still appear as if you are reading a document or web page.

While reading a book you will find options in the top right (tap once on the display) for brightness (slider bar), font type and size (5 font types and ten sizes), and opening up the search box. In the upper left are buttons for the library and table of contents. When you jump to view the table of contents then a red flag labeled Resume will appear over on the right so you can jump right back to where you were reading. Along the bottom you will find the page number, with total number of pages shown, along with a slider bar to quickly tap and slide to various parts of the book. To turn a page you simply slide your finger from right to left or left to right. Tapping, holding, and sliding along words in the book give you options for dictionary, bookmark, and search.

iBooks looks great, is very fast, and I like that non-DRM EPUBs are supported. I am not yet making the jump to purchase books from iBooks because you can currently only use the iPad to read them. If I find the iPad to be my primary ebook reading device then I may start purchasing books from Apple, but there are also a few other ebook reader applications available that are more universal as you can read about below.

Amazon Kindle application

I owned both first and second generation Amazon Kindle devices and purchased about 15 titles specific to the Kindle format. That is not many titles, but it is still nice to be able to access and read those books using the Amazon Kindle mobile client on the iPhone and BlackBerry. The Amazon Kindle application for the iPad appeared on launch day and it was easy for me to simply log into my account and download selected books right to my iPad. The iPad application is pretty good, but the Kindle Store is not integrated into the application.

When you launch the Amazon Kindle application (iTunes link) you will be given the option to login or create an account. I logged in to my existing account and saw there were no ebooks on the Home page. Tapping the word Showing in the lower left gives you the option to view Archived Items and doing this brought up my library backed up on Amazon servers. I tapped a few books and they were automatically downloaded to my iPad to appear on the Home page. You can view your ebooks with cover pages or via small thumbnails and details. You can sort them by recent, title, and author as well. There are refresh and info button in the lower right corner.

Tapping on the info button brings up a menu that includes settings, help, about, learn, contact support, and more. The only settings here on the Home page are for registering your device and toggling basic reading mode on and off. When basic reading mode is off then you will see page turning animations appear as you read. When you select a book and go to start reading it then tapping on the book brings up a Home button in the top left, bookmark in top right, and bottom row of options. Here you will find option for going back, adding or removing bookmarks, Go to option (cover, table of contents, beginning, or specified location), view options with five font sizes, three background colors (black, white, and sepia), and brightness slider, and finally a sync icon to sync the book to the furthest read location. It is nice to see this Whispersync technology used here so you can read on different devices and not lose your place.

Tapping and holding on a word brings up options to add a note or highlight to your ebook. To navigate forward and back in a book you simply slide your finger from right to left or left to right or tap the left or right side of the display. Pinch and zoom is supported on images and in other areas of the application. I like having a sepia background to reduce some of the contrast between black and white and the font looks fine to me. The application is fast and it was easy to get my purchased Kindle content onto the iPad. The Kindle library is quite large and it is great to see this on the iPad.

Unfortunately, tapping on the Kindle Store takes you to the Safari web browser as there is no in-client store front. After you make a purchase though your ebook appears almost instantly in your library.

Kobo application

Kobo started out life known as Shortcovers and has evolved into a powerful cross platform ebook client with corporate backing from Borders. You can find Kobo clients for the Mac, PC, iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm webOS, and Google Android platforms with a new HD client for the Apple iPad. You can also read their books on dedicated ebook reader devices that support Adobe Digital Editions and the DRM EPUB format. Apple's new iBooks client supports DRM-free EPUB formats so you cannot currently use it to read Kobo books. One MAJOR reason I like using Kobo, in addition to the cross platform client, are the coupon and discount offers I get just about every single week that help me save on new titles. A rather large collection of public domain books are available for FREE too.

Not all titles available in the Kobo store are available for the iPad's enlarged display, but they are working on getting their library updated to support all of their titles and out of the ten I have loaded four of them are not yet available for the iPad.

When you first launch Kobo you are taken to a pop-up to login or create an account. After I logged in to my existing account I was taken to my library. Along the top you will see three tabs for I'm Reading, Library, and Store. Similar to the iBooks bookshelf you can tap the bottom wrench icon to choose from 7 shelf types to give your iPad a look of a real bookshelf. You can also select from 8 different bookmark icons to be used with Kobo. Also down in the bottom right is the sort option to browse by title, author, or recently read. In the bottom left are toggle icons for showing books on a shelf or book cover thumbnails and more details. Tapping and holding on the book opens up the title, author, rating, and tabs for overview, table of contents, delete, and read book.

Tapping on the Store tab actually opens up a store in the Kobo application itself rather than taking you out to the web browser. Just Released titles appear with book covers along the top with options to scroll right and left to see more. Today's Top 50 and NY Times Bestsellers-Fiction appear in two columns below the Just Released section. You can also tap Jump to in order to go to home, top 50, browse categories, and recommended reading. You can scroll up and down the store to see more or just type in a title in the search box. You can tap on the bottom left to sort books by bestsellers, price (low to high), rating, title (A-Z or Z-A). I see on the Kobo store site that newspapers and magazines are coming soon too so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for these on my iPad.

When you tap the I'm Reading tab you will be taken to a pop up with black background and book covers on top of the books that you have opened on your bookshelf. You then tap the book you want to jump back into reading. The book opens up in nearly full screen with just the signal, time, and battery bar up top. Tapping once on the center area of text slides down and up toolbars at the top and bottom. Along the top toolbar you will find buttons for Back, Table of Contents, Overview, and Bookmarks. These are all pretty self-explanatory and take you to the labeled pages. Along the bottom you will find a slider bar taking up most of the left that lets you quickly navigate in the book. Over on the right are icons for fonts, brightness, bookmarks, and toolbar wrench. Tapping the font icon shows you there are four available font sizes with a font size slider giving you the option to choose from nine font sizes. Tapping brightness lets you toggle the night reading mode (white text on black background) and also use a slider bar to adjust brightness. Tapping the bookmark icon sets a bookmark and tapping it again removes the bookmark. The wrench icon opens up display settings where you can turn Kobo styling on or off. Kobo styling enables font and margin styling optimized for the iPad screen, whereas leaving it off uses the publisher's original styling. You can also choose a page transition style (none, page flip, page fade, and page curl). To turn pages you can tap the left or right side or slide your finger from left to right and right to left. Sliding up and down does nothing for navigation.

What am I using?

The Apple iPad just launched a couple of days ago and I am quite impressed that we already have three extremely functional and capable clients on the device. The iBooks application looks most like a physical book and looks great with plenty of font styles and sizes with a slick UI. If you are into reading non-DRM EPUB books then you will be quite pleased to see they can easily be loaded on your iPad through iTunes syncing. I am not yet convinced I should buy ebooks on the iBooks store because I can only read them on the iPad and they seem to be locked down more than some others.

The Kindle application is great because there is a huge amount of ebook content and if you already own a Kindle then you will be very pleased to see all that content appear on your iPad. I don't like having to jump outside the app to visit the store and hope this is changed in a future update. Syncing your last reading location is slick and if you read Kindle content on multiple devices then you will want to use this application.

Kobo looks great on the iPad and is extremely fast. I haven't found a way yet to get non-Kobo store content on the iPad, but with the multiple clients (especially on my two favorites smartphones; Nexus One and Palm Pre Plus) I am pleased to buy books through their store and read them in multiple locations. As I mentioned, you can get lots of coupons and discounts on Kobo books so I recommend you wait for these offers before buying ebooks.

Each of these three have their strengths and I personally plan to keep all three on my iPad since I have a varied ebook collection. Honestly though, the Apple iBooks app has a great UI and I would love to use it for more content. When the Barnes & Noble eReader application is rolled out I will also take a look at that and post on my thoughts too. I have to spend many more hours reading ebooks on the iPad before I can decide if any of my ebook readers are passed along.

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