The iPad as an E-reader

So, I’ve owned my iPad for a few weeks now and I absolutely love this device. I eagerly wanted to see how the iPad fared as an e-reader, particularly when compared to my trusty Kindle.

I’ll admit that when the iPad first came out last year I was sorely disappointed. I wanted a tablet Mac similar to the tablet PCs struggling to gain in popularity. I wanted a full computer with USB ports, a physical keyboard, a large touch-screen display, and a large hard drive. I still want USB ports, but that’s another story. I did seriously look at the Xoom and set out to test one as soon as they came out. While the iPad gets a huge end cap display at the local Best Buy, the Xoom is hidden around GPS devices and printers. But, given the price, the fact that every benefit the Xoom has over the iPad is TBD (to be delivered), that the iPad just works easier… well, it was no contest. So, here I am, using the iPad to consume various content items for reading and here’s what I found:

  • Comics: While not a huge comic book fan, I do enjoy the occasional comic book or graphic novel – but I didn’t want to read them on my iPhone, it’s just too small to see the images and read the dialog bubbles. My assumption that the iPad would be the perfect for reading comics turned out to be correct. It’s absolutely beautiful. My only complaint is that I need so many different comic book apps to read the limited numbers of titles I enjoy. Most of them have overlapping catalogs, but some titles are only available with certain readers. I currently use Dark Horse, Comics+, DC Comics, and Comics (by Comixology). I would use the Digital Comics app, which looks like it has the best interface, but it crashes every time I load it. The prices for individual books are very reasonable (free to $3, with $1 being a popular price). As a comic book reader, the iPad excels. I don’t see buying many physical comic books in the future.
  • Newspapers: I subscribe to the physical versions of The Wall Street Journal, its sister publication Barron’s, The Economist, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Working from home, I also have the ability to read these publications – usually at lunch or a few minutes before starting my day. However, since getting the iPad and the various apps for WSJ, The Economist, Barron’s, The Financial Times, and aggregators like Flipboard I find myself picking up the physical versions less and less. Being a slow riser, I now read a bit of the Journal or other news sources before I even get out of bed. This is powerful, and marks a paradigm shift for print publications like never before. Local newspaper organizations simply must embrace the iPad, Android, Playbook, and the eventual Windows tablets or face extinction.  For instance, the FW Star-Telegram does not have an iPad app, while its competitor the Dallas Morning News does.  I hope they rectify that soon because I will be changing my print subscriptions to digital or weekend only.  For short-form reading the iPad is fast, responsive, immersive, and beautiful.
  • Magazines: In my experience, magazines are ironically not as good on the iPad as newspapers – at least so far.  I found the Wired Magazine app, for instance, to be cumbersome and confusing and decidedly not worth the price of each issues or the crazy amount of space each issue takes up (over 300 MB).  They did have some features like video, which contributes greatly to that download size, but mostly the app is linear and does not fully embrace the platform.  Since the issue is completely downloaded you can read it offline, but in the end I deleted this app.  The National Geographic app is beautiful, but again too linear.  For instance, the table of contents does not link to the stories – the user needs to essentially page through the issue, though you can use thumbnails.  Both of these apps lack a annual subscription or the ability to link a physical subscription to the digital version.  For that, I blame Apple.  In comparison, the Kindle has gotten better at magazines and other books with pictures, but it still has the limitations of the e-ink display which essentially means no color and relatively slow paging.  For instance, I subscribe to Fortune Magazine for $2.29/month on the Kindle and the images are really food for monochrome, but they’re not great.
  • Documents:While the Kindle can handle PDF documents and a few other formats by sending them through Amazon, the Kindle clearly lacks in this area. PDF documents are not resized correctly when loaded directly and the requirement to e-mail documents to Amazon for converting to their format is simply ridiculous. The iPad, however, excels in this area. Apps like Documents to Go, File Browser, Bookman, PDFReader, and Quickoffice make the transferring and reading of documents – even the creation of Microsoft Office documents a snap.  For my course work this allows me to read the provided PDF files very easily – even pulling them from my Windows computer over the Wi-Fi. This now frees me to read these documents just about anywhere, without needing to squint while reading them on my iPhone, which is good when I need to reference something quickly, but not for studying material for the first time. Likewise, navigating around documents, while not as efficient as using a PC or Mac, is a lot simpler and faster on the iPad over my Kindle.
  • Books: What is an e-reader without books?  As previously mentioned, I love my Kindle but find it lacking for magazines, textbooks, and other books which rely on images or diagrams.  I’ve owned a Kindle since the day they were announced (and had it in my hand the day after).  My wife also owns one and we share books between our Kindles, Kindle apps on our computers, iPhones, and now my iPad.  I also have iBooks, Google Books, and Safari To Go apps.  The iPad opens up my book choices to books which are not yet available on the Kindle, although this is a small subset of the total ebooks out there.  For subscription based books like those I read through Safari the iPad is great, particular for series like the Head First books which rely heavily on graphics.  However, when it comes to long form reading of pure text, the iPad can strain my eyes.  Staring into a flash light is simply not as relaxing as reading a physical book or the Kindle.  Using my Kindle I read faster than a physical book, yet on the iPad I read slower.  I also discovered a disturbing disadvantage for using the iPad to read books: insomnia.  Most of my reading occurs in bed as I settle in for sleep, barring the occasional great story I can’t put down, reading helps me go to sleep almost every night.  In my tests with using the iPad rather than the Kindle for this purpose I found myself laying awake until 3 AM, hours after I put the device down and turned off all my lights.  It turns out, I’m not alone because bright LCD displays can trick your brain into thinking its daytime. Not to mention the traits Amazon highlights, such as reading in daylight itself. Reading a Kindle is as close to reading an actual paper book as electronics can get, and for that I will always be a fan and evangelist (well that, and the unlimited sharing of books between Kindles attached to the same account, as opposed to the limits imposed by other e-readers).

Before I conclude, a discussion of the iPad as an e-reader is not complete without a discussion of Apple’s unreasonable 30% rake of content sellers.  Just this week BeamItDown has closed down its iFlow book reader.  The books they sold cost them 70% and Apple took the remaining 30%, leaving no money for iFlow to pay its employees or bills.  My feeling is that iFlow won’t be the last victim of this practice and anti-trust action may follow if Apple does not voluntarily change the policy.  Apparently, they are already handing out exemptions to favored companies, which actually makes the practice seem even more underhanded.  For the iPad to remain a serious e-reader contender I believe the 30% take of subscriptions and purchases needs to change.

Overall, the iPad is a great platform for reading and consuming content.  I find it particular great for comics, newspapers, and graphic heavy books like textbooks and Head First books.  I love the flexibility of the device and just how simply gorgeous the display shines with bright and crisp colors.  I will continue to rely on my Kindle for long-form reading of most books and never see myself switching to any LCD based e-reader for that purpose (even a future Kindle).  Just like I eagerly awaited a good e-ink device to read books I now eagerly await a device using Mirasol or some other color display which does not shine  a light in my face.  For video and highly interactive reading I will now rely on my iPad.

Update 2012-01-27: Magazines now rock on the iPad.  I use Newsstand to keep track of several magazines I formerly read in physical form.  They aren’t as huge as the Wired issues, and are easy to use.  For PDFs I know use GoodNotes for reading, annotating, and highlight PDFs.  This is very useful when combined with a Dropbox account.

2 Responses to “The iPad as an E-reader”

  1. Peter Says:

    Yeah, I think the reason the iPad has been so successful is it has extended the concept of convenience computing. PCs brought computing to the home, laptops/wifi brought it anywhere within your home, but there was still a barrier, flicking open the lid, having a screen raised that forms a wall with others, etc. But the iPad extended convenience computing. Instant-on from sleep, ability to treat it like a magazine and toss it on the coffee table, look something up during the ads while watching the tennis, etc.

    I use my iPad on the train while going back and forth to work. It’s great for reading, tapping out notes, watching a TED video, etc. So it’s convenience turns downtime into productive time.


  2. Richard Says:

    Thanks for reminding me I need to update this post.

    Peter, you’re right. I use my iPad at school (Exec. MBA program @ SMU) for textbooks, articles, and as a second screen next to my laptop on occasion. For articles and other materials I need to annotate it’s an awesome platform. There are several apps that allow you to write and highlight all over a PDF or other document. I assume there are similar Android apps for that matter. At a client visit I used the same app to take photos of merchandise and documents so I could make my notes on those.

    At home I use the iPad to not only read comics, books with diagrams, and news – no longer reading the paper versions of my newspapers – but I stream content from my TV tuner, watch digital movies, watch baseball, and even tele/video conference. (love TED)

    I’ve tried iA Writer, Evernote, and other apps for content creation. It works, but this is still an area where I really like a physical keyboard.