Once you’ve read a few ebooks on the right handheld device, it’s very hard to go back to paper. But which is the right e-reader? The three most popular e-readers today are the iPad, Kindle, and Nook. And each has its uses.
I know ebook enthusiasts who will only read on the iPad. Jeffrey Tucker was giving thumbs-down reviews to the most popular ebook readers back when I was already a complete convert to digital text. He said that turning the pages was too slow, that you couldn’t flip around in the book. “I can see how this might be valuable if this is the way we mostly read — the way people navigate the latest best-selling novel — but I have my doubts that this is the way most of us use books.”
Five years later, he wrote,
The iPad was a revelation to me.… That thing changed my whole life. I only needed to see my first epub on iPad to realize that I would only read paper and ink with great reluctance from then on. It’s still the same today. In fact, I’ve turned the epub into my main profession: I run the Laissez Faire Club that releases top-of-the-line epubs weekly on a subscription basis.
I also know people who take the opposite position: they will only read ebooks on e-paper readers such as the Kindle and never on a tablet such as the iPad. One editor I know tells me that looking at a backlit screen like the iPad’s for hours turns an otherwise pleasurable book into an assault on the eyes.
Unfortunately, there is no ideal e-reader for all of us. I’m lucky, I suppose, that my job requires me to have a variety of these devices for ebook production and quality assurance. I don’t have to choose only one. And I do find myself switching among them all the time.
Here’s my breakdown of the options and which one best fits which circumstance.
I agree with the iPad fans. My favorite reading experience is on Apple’s iBooks app, which just gets better and better. Last night I downloaded to a newer iPad a book I’d started on an older iPad. Instead of opening to the beginning of the book, iBooks opened it to the last page I’d read and showed my bookmark. This wasn’t a book I’d purchased from Apple; it was a book I’d produced myself. And yet iBooks recognized it across devices and updated my position in the text, my notes, and my bookmarks from the iCloud.
I can’t even choose between the classic iPad and the iPad mini. When I’m in a reading chair or out of the house (but still indoors, a point I’ll come back to in a moment), I prefer the convenience of the mini’s size. When I’m in bed, I prefer the larger screen of the original iPad.
So why don’t I insist on reading only on the iPad? Because I do a lot of reading outside: on the deck, in the back yard, in the front yard, at the park. The iPad and all other backlit, color flatscreen tablets, are awful for outdoor reading. The glare turns the screen into a mirror, and I end up looking at the sky or the underside of tree branches reflected in my text. I have to tilt the tablet constantly to find a shadow to read in. The iPhone screen is small enough that you can shade it with a free hand or by leaning over it, but anything larger makes reading feel like slow-motion acrobatics.
So when I’m headed outside, I put down my iPad and pick up a lighter, sleeker, e-paper Kindle.
You can read about e-paper here at Wikipedia, but here’s the summary:
Electronic paper, e-paper and electronic ink are display technologies which are designed to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. Unlike conventional backlit flat panel displays which emit light, electronic paper displays reflect light like ordinary paper, theoretically making it more comfortable to read, and giving the surface a wider viewing angle compared to conventional displays.
My favorite e-paper device is the Kindle Touch. The combination of e-paper and a touch screen is ideal, and Amazon’s cover (sold separately) has a built-in reading light. I loved the Kindle 2 and the Kindle 3, but once you’ve used a touch screen, it’s hard to go back to pressing buttons.
The Kindle Paperwhite is even better: it has side lighting built into the device itself, no special cover or reading light necessary. The only reason I still prefer my Kindle Touch is because the Paperwhite doesn’t have audio. (All other Kindles can be used for audiobooks as well as ebooks.)
The most beautiful of the e-paper readers is the Nook Glow from Barnes & Noble. It has side lighting and a touch screen, just like the Kindle Paperwhite. It’s small and light without resorting to the tiny screen of the old Sony Reader. It has slim press buttons under a soft rubber exterior along the sides, and I like using these to page back and forth in a book, but you never need to use them: you can do everything through the touch screen if you prefer.
But there are two huge disadvantages to the e-paper line of Nook readers:
- Amazon has many more books
Amazon’s Kindle is designed for purchasing ebooks from Amazon. The Nook is designed to purchase ebooks from Barnes & Noble. This is going to be an issue with any e-reader you buy: it will not easily let you read all ebooks. So if you’re going to be stuck with one company’s catalog, I say go for the much bigger catalog. (And you can read Amazon’s entire catalog of ebooks even if you don’t own a Kindle device. There are Kindle apps for your computer, your tablet, your phone; you can even read Kindle books in a web browser.)
Some would argue that the Nook has a bigger catalog because it uses the EPUB format, which is the standard ebook format for pretty much every device other than the Kindle (which uses a format called MOBI), and the vast majority of free books online are EPUBs, but if you install calibre on your computer, it will convert either format for either e-reader, so my Kindle is chockfull of books I downloaded in EPUB. Amazon even lets you mail your own documents to the Kindle, so I can download an EPUB to calibre and have it convert and send wirelessly to my Kindle. You can’t email a book to your Nook.
- The Nook is a beautiful piece of hardware, but its software is buggy!
At Invisible Order, when we create ebooks for our clients, we want them to look good on any e-reader. My main use for the Nook is to confirm that it will display our ebooks properly. The reason I first reach for the Nook at this testing stage is because the Nook is the lowest common denominator: it’s the reader that is most likely to mess up how a book is displayed. It wraps chapter titles awkwardly, sometimes losing the end of words altogether. It doesn’t know how to handle tables or lists properly. Indentation is unreliable. If we can make a book look good on the Nook, it will look good on the Kindle or iPad, but the reverse is not true!
That makes the Nook invaluable to us as developers, but it’s a big problem for me as a consumer of ebooks. Not all ebook makers will have made sure their books work well on the Nook, not even for ebooks sold through Barnes & Noble. If you want the e-reader that will display the most books most completely and attractively, go for the iPad or Kindle’s tablet: the Kindle Fire. Your best bet for a reliable layout on e-paper is the Kindle Paperwhite, followed by the other e-paper Kindles. Nook really comes in last. (See “Will the Nook Gather Dust?”)
There can be only one!
And if you have to pick only one e-reader?
I still can’t give a definitive answer, but here’s a conditionally definitive answer:
- If you really just want one device for reading ebooks, and that’s all you plan to use it for, the hands-down best e-reader is the Kindle Paperwhite.
- If you want a beautiful e-reader that will allow you to do more (much more) than read a book, nothing beats the iPad mini. (But don’t expect to read it at the beach.)