After a month and a bit with the iPad I have decided to cover some of the reading applications for the device. Touted as a portable computer that's poised to kill off the Kindle the question is does the iPad live up to the hype of a portable reader or is does it fall short of e-Ink and traditional print options? What applications are the best for reading on the iPad and will users be able to start building their virtual libraries?
Reading a virtual book
Before I delve into the nitty gritty of comparing applications the question of whether or not the iPad makes a good book reader should be addressed. I grew up reading, through elementary school and well into high school books were more reliable friends to me than actual people, and so I have a a great fondness for printed books. If I were in elementary school today there's no way that an iPad would replace books taken out from the school's library, if only because like my favorite Wayne Gretzky poster that I brought to class for show-and-tell one day, it would likely be stolen by older kids. I also don't read the iPad in the bath, which is something I regularly will do with paperbacks and comic books.
The iPad is light when compared with a laptop, but heavy when compared to a paperback or even the Amazon Kindle. Holding it one-handed for extended periods of time can be tiring, and more likely as with a hardcover book it will need to be rested on something for longer reading periods. Also unlike a printed book or an e-Ink display (as in the Kindle or Sony's eReaders), the iPad's screen is backlit. This makes it easier to read in situations where lighting might not be optimal, but some people do find it tiring on the eyes. Having said that the eyestrain is nowhere near as aggravating as that from the ten year old computer monitors I use at work, and even after several hours of reading I've yet to experience any discomfort reading.
Where the iPad clearly trumps traditional books is size and storage. It's no heavier than a hardcover book, and yet it can fit hundreds of books easily in it. It's far easier to pack an iPad than two or three novels if you're going on a trip, and that's without even considering that the iPad also plays music and video, does email, browses the internet and much more. While books, and the Kindle, are clearly better dedicated reading experiences many people are going to find the advantages of the iPad as being worth the trade-offs.
One area where the iPad does trump the Kindle as a reading platform is that it's much more verstatile. The Kindle only will read ebooks bought through Amazon and some document files loaded in to the device (via an Amazon service that's charged per-use). The iPad will read Amazon books through the Kindle application, ePubs through iBooks, books sold via Apple's iBook store, most standard document types and more. Also reading comicbooks on the iPad is amazing, and something that the Kindle can not reproduce.
More on all of this after the jump.
iBooks versus Kindle: reading apps clash
As a Kindle user I was well acquainted with Amazon's Kindle application for my iPhone, and was pleased when Amazon announced that they were doing an iPad version. Having bought the Kindle in the months before the iPad's announcement I had built up a small library of virtual titles and did not relish losing them when I made the jump from Kindle to iPad and thanks to this application I don't need to. The Kindle application is tied to my Amazon account, allowing me to wirelessly send books to the iPad (internet connection dependent) from my Amazon account. As with the iPhone app, and the Kindle itself, Amazon's Whispersync technology keeps track of where I am in a book, so if I want to read more on my iPhone, Macbook or Kindle (if I still owned it) I would be able to jump right in.
After they had released a disappointing application for the Mac, my hopes were not too high for the Kindle app, but in many ways it is the best reading software so far available on the iPad besting even Apple's iBooks in many areas. The app allows a reader to control the brightness of the iPad's screen, letting readers dim it in low-light conditions and amp it up in brighter situations. Control over font selection, type size and even the ability to read white letters on a black background allows more control over the reading experiance than users get from an actual Kindle or a real book. The iPad's Kindle app also allows for colour images, as long as they're colourized in the Kindle file, which means that some illustrations that appear grey-scale on a Kindle will be in rich colour on the iPad.
Colour is where Apple's iBooks application excells. Picture books, like the free copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, are lovely. Covers, the bookshelf interface and pretty much every aspect of the application is lovely. Unlike the Kindle app users can also buy books right from iBooks, the Kindle app requires users to leave the application and use the iPad's web browser for shopping. The process is nice, even if the recently launched iBooks store is significantly smaller than Amazon's. Store size alone is the reason alone I've spent more time using the Kindle application than iBooks.
What iBooks can do is read a lot of different kind of documents. Especially useful is the fact that it will use un-protected ePub books meaning that users can load free public domain books from sources like Google Books and The Gutenberg Project into their iPad. Granted you won't get the latest Stephen King horror thriller, but if the author's been dead long enough you'll find it.
Both applications also allow for generous samples of the books to be downloaded, so you can read into the book before you actually shell out the money.
Comic books: a longbox in your satchel
Where the iPad shines strongest is when it comes to comic books. Though a niche market compared with novels and non-fiction texts, the iPad's screen makes reading comics a joy and the on-screen images are generally clearer and crisper than those in the print editions where paper quality and Quebecor get in the way of really translating the art with perfect fidelity.
I have always found reading digital comics on my Macbook to be a pain, since using a laptop is a sitting forward activity whereas reading a comic is a leaning back activity. Even when I bought Marvel's collected DVD-Rom sets I rarely read them, because it was never quite the same experiance as reading a comic.
That's no longer an issue with the iPad, and I actually prefer reading comics on the device as opposed to their paper form. Granted I won't be taking the iPad into the bathtub, the way I often do my weekly batch of comics, but for sitting on the couch and reading what's up with Spider-Man or Tony Stark I'm ready for the digital age. The fact that hopefully soon I will no longer need to deal with boxes upon boxes of back issues is icing on the cake.
Ah, but sadly the digital age of comics is not quite fully upon us. I looked into why while you can buy music through iTunes on the same day as you can in the record store, digital comics tend to be months or years behind what's on the stands, and the resulting article appeared in The Georgia Straight. I've also debated the issue with comics podcaster John Siuntres on his show Wordballoon. The basic explanation of the hesitation on the parts of most comics publishers to release comics digitally at the same time as in comic stores, is that they don't want to hurt the comic stores. Having said that it's early in the digital comics rush, and things will change.
However that leaves digital comic stores selling old books, and the new comics to pirates and bit torrent. Of the virtual comic stores on the iPad the big ones are all very similar. Marvel's iPad application got a lot of attention when it launched, but it's just a Marvel branded version of Comixology's application. It's a good application, and the $1.99 per issue price is not a bad one but it might be a bit high for issues that are well past their sell-by date. There are some interesting pricing schemes, such as Comixology's "digital trades" collections which bunch several issues from a series into a $9.99 package so there's hope that the price might change.
Comixology, the Marvel app, iVerse and the others all have a store component built in. There are subtle interface differences and slightly different selection of publishers to buy from, but for the most part there's not a lot to differentiate between them.
Readers who have access to comics scanned in as .cbr or .cbz files, may be interested in ComicZeal4which is a clean and slick reader with no store interface. While it's possible that people have scanned their own comic collections into .cbr format the process is much more time consuming than copying a CD into iTunes and so most of the files that ComicZeal4 will be reading are likely to be pirated. Which is a sign that the comic industry might start wanting to look at moving a little quicker into the digital market before the black-market is established.