Update: iBooks 1.1 was released 6/23/2010. It offers several notable new features including PDF storage and an iPhone version. Macapper.com has a nice, concise review of the new features. I love to read. E-reading is one of the primary reasons I bought an iPad, and I’m now reading my fifth book on the iPad. I’ve split time almost equally between iBooks and the Kindle app.

I’ve had my iPad for a while now, but I wanted to reserve judgment on the iPad as an e-reader until I had a chance to do some real reading on the device. I wanted to form an opinion based on my true reading experience and not just the visual impression of iBooks and Kindle.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoy reading books on the iPad. I was initially worried that eye strain or the loss of the traditional text reading experience would make it seem more like a gimmick than some revolution in reading. But those fears were quickly assuaged, and I’m now absolutely hooked on the iPad as an e-reader.

In this post, I’ll explain why the iPad is here to stay as an e-reader, and I’ll give you my personal comparison of iBooks and Kindle on the iPad.

Note: I’m writing this just a day after Apple’s 2010 WWDC event where they announced that enhancements to iBooks are coming. I will update this post, if necessary, after the new version is out.

Why e-reading makes sense on the iPad

  • Companion apps like Wikipanion, Google Maps, dictionary apps, and other reference apps make for a much richer total reading experience. When I read books about history or books that talk about places in the world, I love to be able to see where things are on a map. It’s also great being able to tap over to Wikipanion to get more background on some historical event, person, or anything. Having all of this information literally at my finger tips blows my mind. If this is not a revolution in information accessibility, we’ll never see one. Incredible.
  • There is no physical space requirement for your books, no more cluttered bookshelves, and no more dust bunnies.
  • Books are backed up digitally. It’s harder to lose them.
  • Forget about book lights. Night reading is a pleasure since the screen is back-lit.
  • Mark up and annotate text without harming a page. Undoing annotations is a snap too.
  • The iPad’s long battery life makes e-reading very practical. Not long ago, I used my iPad steadily over of a ten-hour period during a long car ride, and the battery still had 29% remaining at the end of the day.

The cons of e-reading: What you give up when going digital

  • You can’t just lend a book to a friend.
  • A book is no longer a physical object. It can’t be signed by an author, a loved one, or bear other marks that make it special to you.
  • Reading outdoors is not as easy, especially in bright light.
  • An iPad is more likely to be stolen out of your car than a Hemingway paperback.
  • You’re not looking at paper anymore; for some, this is a problem. I wondered if it would be for me, but I’ve found that I’m not experiencing any eye strain at all, even after reading for hours at a time.
  • Page numbers are no longer consistent. The page count of an e-book changes as you adjust the text size. So you can’t just tell a friend that you liked the paragraph on page 205.

Now, a comparison of iBooks and the Kindle app…

Things both iBooks and the Kindle app do well

  • Highlighting text
  • Page turning is easy; swipe from side to side or tap in the margin
  • Work well both horizontally and vertically
  • Remember where you left off
  • Have screen brightness adjustments built in
  • Allow text size adjustment
  • Quick access to table of contents and library

What iBooks does better than the Kindle app

  • Integration with App Store books. You can browse and buy books without leaving the app. You can still buy books for your Kindle from the iPad, but you have to do it through Safari at amazon.com.
  • Tens of millions of free public domain books available in the App Store. Great news if you like to catch up on classics in the public domain (for free).
  • iBooks has more visual appeal. Things like the realistic 2-page book view in horizontal mode and the way the app does a cool flip rotation when going into the book store look fun and make you smile. They probably also help sell the device to others. But honestly, this doesn’t do anything for reading experience.
  • Built-in dictionary. This is a true joy. I’ve always liked keeping a dictionary handy when reading. When smart phones came out, I thought it was amazing that I always had a dictionary in my pocket. Now, all I have to do is touch a word in iBooks to define it. Amazing; simply amazing.
  • Search. iBooks lets you search the entire text for words or phrases, while Kindle has no built-in search capability. This is incredibly useful for revisiting something later. It’s also one of the reasons e-reading is here to stay. Very practical.
  • ePub support. You can import your ePub books right into the app.

What the Kindle app does better than iBooks

  • Easier on the eyes. You can hide everything around the page so that all you’re left with is the page text. I find that reading in the Kindle app vertically is the best reading experience on the iPad. The entire screen is dedicated to the book text.
  • Kindle remembers your brightness setting. For some reason, iBooks sometimes forgets the brightness level if you leave the app or if the screen goes to sleep. This is actually pretty annoying. But Kindle always remembers.
  • Kindle is superior for reading books that you want to highlight and annotate because you can access all of your annotated snippets online at amazon.com. This is incredibly useful if you want to quote an author or see your annotations somewhere other than your iPad.
  • Kindle shows popular annotations made by others.
  • Kindle allows you to make notes about parts of the book. This is ideal for capturing a quick thought inspired by a sentence or paragraph in the book you’re reading.
  • Adjusting the background color. Sepia and black are available in addition to plain white. I find reading difficult if the background is anything other than white, however.
  • Kindle loads books faster. iBooks sometimes takes a noticeable amount of time to load a book that you’ve already started reading. There is a delay in loading the pages.
  • Kindle books are cheaper -- generally by a dollar or two than those in iBooks.
  • Kindle carries books published by Random House, a publisher who hasn’t entered Apple’s bookstore yet.
  • Kindle isn’t limited to the iPad.  If you also own a Kindle, iPhone, iPod Touch, or anything else that can render Kindle books, you can read them there too.

Which one is better?

Both iBooks and Kindle are great reading apps. I’ve read several books in both. From a reading experience perspective, the Kindle app is slightly better. I really like the clean, uncluttered look of the Kindle app when reading. However, iBooks has a few notable feature advantages like the built-in dictionary and text search that make it more practical to use at times.

So I’m declaring Kindle the winner from a readability perspective and iBooks the winner from a usability perspective. Both are great, and both will only get better. It’s quite amazing that these apps are so good in their first versions.

Which do you prefer?