iPad, Kindle, Nook or Sony? What is the best e-book reader? – Chicago Sun-Times

It feels as though within the past year, the concept of e-books has finally crested the top of a hill; it can only pick up speed from here.

Look at the state of that world. There’s a presumption that new books from each of the major publishers will be available in electronic editions alongside the usual flavors. And there are tools and resources in place that allow the smaller publishers (and even individual) authors to turn manuscripts into polished, structured e-books and get them listed with all of the major retailers.

True, the prices of e-reader devices are still high enough to scare away anyone who hasn’t already opened a slate-sized space in their souls for e-books. But it’s more than a one-horse game now, and prices have plummeted. If you just want a dedicated, straightforward e-reader, you’ll pay a fraction of last year’s prices for the same array of functions. And the money you would have spent on a first-generation Kindle back in the day will almost buy you an iPad now.

Maybe the most significant metric of e-books’ acceptance is the volume of mail I’ve been getting about them from folks who are mentally psyching themselves up for buying an e-reader either pre-holiday (as a gift for a friend) or post-holiday (when they’ll be armed with the usual $100 gift card from Mom, Dad, or maybe a particularly awesome aunt or uncle).

My advice is consistent: right now, the two best e-readers are the latest edition of Amazon’s Kindle ($139 or $189, depending on configuration), and Apple’s iPad ($499 to about $860). You’ll want one of those two. They’re easy to choose between because they’re polar opposites in every way.

1) The iPad is big. The Kindle is tiny.

The iPad’s big screen doesn’t force you to turn pages any more frequently than you’d be turning them on a paper edition. The Kindle doesn’t force you to carry your e-reader in a bag or a folio; it slips neatly into most pockets on men’s clothing.

2) The iPad can display any kind of content. The Kindle has been optimized for books.

Even when you download something as complicated as an electronic comic book or a magazine, the iPad displays the pages in full color with the original page designs intact, instead of smacking the content around a little to make it conform to a threadbare “one long column of scrolling text” layout. But because the Kindle is focused on books, it can use a super high-contrast black and white display that’s sometimes indistinguishable from printed text, and a battery life that’s measured in weeks (three or four) instead of hours (ten to twelve, on the iPad). The Kindle’s text is just as readable as the iPad’s’s, at a fraction of its cost, size, and power demands.

3) The iPad is a computer with the form of an e-reader. The Kindle’s text is an e-reader that can handle limited computing functions.

The iPad’s OS and processor is muscular enough to take on much of your laptop’s workload, and there’s a huge library of mature apps available for it.

I’ll put it this way: this whole column has been an iPad production. I wrote it, researched it, edited it, and sent it to my editor completely on my iPad. I didn’t arrange that just so I could make a point, either. It happened that way because my iPad has replaced my $1,600 MacBook as my standard “I think I’ll work in the coffeeshop this afternoon” computer.

The Kindle has no such ambitions. And that’s why it costs $139 instead of $499. Nonetheless, it comes with WiFi (3G is another $50) and a surprisingly muscular web browser that’s based on the same browser engine as the iPad’s browser. You wouldn’t want to rely on the Kindle as a productivity tool, but it’s very efficient with simple Internet errands. And the 3G service is free for the life of the hardware.

4) The iPad is open. The Kindle is closed.

And when’s the last time an Apple product has been on the right side of that kind of comparison? Okay, it’s relative, but still.

Apple would be very pleased if you chose to favor their own iBookstore with your consumer dollars, but the iPad will read books from any source. It’s hands-down the most ecumenical e-book reader on the market. You can add any ePub file to your iBooks library. ePub is to digital books as JPEG is to digital photos; it’s the standard that the whole world is backing. The default format for freely-downloadable books is ePub and it’s supported by all of the consumer tools for making your own e-books, from online utilities that convert the webpage you’re reading to desktop apps that convert documents and even full manuscripts.

Free, downloadable iPad apps add the option of buying and reading ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle store, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and most of the other online bookstores. Moving beyond simple text, there are stores and iPad apps for reading comics from every major publisher.

The iPad’s OS also has built-in readers for all of the most popular desktop file formats. Copy a PDF or a Word file (etc.) to the device through your desktop iTunes app or access it via cloud storage (such as a Dropbox.com account) or as an email attachment.; just give the file a tap to read it.

With the Kindle, we come back to the notion that the device is designed to be “an e-reader with benefits” and nothing more. It excels at purchasing and reading content from the Kindle store; everything else is a bit of a kludge. It does have a (somewhat sluggish) PDF reader, and you can load it up with desktop Office files by emailing them to your Kindle’s unique Amazon.com address.

Support for ePub titles is, sadly and somewhat bizarrely, absent from the Kindle. The only easy source for Kindle content is Amazon’s Kindle store.

But that’s kind of OK. Amazon’s Kindle Store has more titles than any other store. Excuse me: “the largely-unverifiable number that Amazon gives me is resoundingly higher than the largely-unverifiable number that the other online bookstores have given me.” And that includes more free public-domain texts than you or I want to hear about.

Plus, simple desktop apps can convert an unlocked ePub (like the titles you can download from Google Books) to a Kindle book with just a few clicks. Despite losing its designation as the 800-pound gorilla of e-readers, the Kindle is still big and smelly enough that Amazon’s proprietary Kindle book format is well-supported by third-party apps.

All told, the “Kindle or iPad?” question really comes down to a basic question: do you want a new kind of book? Or do you really want a new kind of computer?

(Also, parenthetically: “Do you not care that the iPad costs $360 more?” and if so, “Would you mind picking up the check for this lunch?”)

The iPad is a perfect fit for my personal and professional lives. My mobile consumption of media isn’t limited to single columns of text; it includes magazines, comic books, artwork, and “the real Web.” And the ability to write a column, work my way through my Inbox, or do a little online research whenever the mood strikes me more than justifies the added expense.

It also delivers a first-class reading experience. You get full pages of text. The iPad has supreme typographical chops, too. The text is simply more pleasantly-rendered on an iPad than on any other device. And the screen is backlit.

The Kindle makes many compromises, but with huge payoffs to the user. It’s much lighter than a book or an iPad, and unlike either one of those things, you won’t need to support a Kindle on a table or a chair arm after your first fifteen or twenty minutes of reading.

The chief advantage of the Kindle is, of course, its price. The first-generation Kindle was $399. For that much dough, it would only be of real interest to avid readers. It would have failed miserably as a product if it weren’t the pet project of Amazon’s CEO.

$139 is still a lot of money for what is essentially “a purchase that allows you to make additional purchases” but at least it’s within reach. Many potential buyers have emotional, romantic attachments to analog books that won’t be broken by anything even half the price of the iPad.

There are other e-readers out there. I just don’t think they’re terribly competitive in a city that’s already dominated by Godzilla and King Kong. Only two devices even stand out strongly enough to warrant some discussion.

Barnes & Noble has executed pinpoint maneuvers to keep up with Amazon. Like the Kindle, their “Nook” reader is now available in both 3G and WiFi-only editions, and each model is priced only ten bucks higher. One innate advantage of the Nook is that (like damned-near every other reader device) it’ll read any unlocked ePub file in addition to titles purchased from Barnes & Noble’s ebookstore. Plus, it’s based on the Android operating system. In theory, that would open up the device to hoards of third-party apps.

In practice?

… Well, it’s a nice theory, anyway.

The Nook is a lovely device. I just wish it could distinguish itself from the Kindle in any meaningful way. The Nook slaps ineffectively at that kind of ambition with a feature that lets you “lend” e-books to friends, and the ability read the entire commercial Nook library for free so long as you’re sitting in a Barnes & Noble store and connected to the store’s WiFi.

But those features have been so watered-down that they’re almost homeopathic. You can “lend” an individual book only once, and only for two weeks. And if you’ve settled in at the store with your Nook and a $5 latte from the coffee bar, the device will curtly tell you “this ain’t a library, kid” and close the book after an hour.

And then there’s Sony, with its line of Sony Reader devices. They’re designed with a terrific goal: to be as open as possible. It’s an ePub reader that can read content from multiple bookstores and which has native support for PDF files and other desktop file formats. You can download content through WiFi or 3G, copy it via a built-in memory card reader, or just dock it to your desktop as a USB device.

The Sony Reader system also supports a neat feature: borrowing books from your local public library. The system generates a license that self-destructs when the “lending” period is over. At that point, a download slot opens up on the library’s website for another member of the community.

The Sony Reader Touch Edition costs little more than a Kindle or a Nook ($169 from Amazon for the WiFi-only edition … and it’s discounted elsewhere) and it includes a touchscreen interface.

But without the flexibility of the iPad or the huge library of the Kindle, a Sony Reader requires its user to be a little more savvy and proactive about finding content. Despite the presence of a well-stocked Sony Reader e-bookstore, I don’t think it delivers the no-brainer experience that first time e-book users are looking for.

That’s the competition for the Kindle. The iPad has no real competition. That’s going to change soon: iPad-style tablets from Samsung, Toshiba, HP, Notion Ink, and other manufacturers are coming soon. Some models will be even available by the end of the year, and at iPad-competitive prices.

If you’ve played with an iPad and thought “Gosh, that’s for me” then there’s no reason to wait. It’s going to take several months more for these devices to achieve the iPad’s state of polish and maturity.

The big hitch is the software. With the exception of HP (which bought Palm this year mostly to get their hands on its WebOS touch interface) all of these tablets will run the Android OS. There are already plenty of good reader apps for Android. There are even Android phone apps for reading books from the Kindle and Nook stores.

Historically, however, Android is a platform where a usable app for any given task appears in the app Marketplace within days and a good one doesn’t arrive for months. Or it just won’t arrive, period. From what I’ve seen of these Android tablets thus far, I suspect that they’ll prove to be excellent mobile computers “… that can also read books.” The iPad excels at multiple tasks.

I can’t write even 250 words on this subject without reciting my bumper sticker slogan: “If you love books, an e-book is no substitute. But if you love reading, you’ll never switch back.” You can sample hundreds of thousands of books for free without leaving home. When you buy, you typically get an unbeatably low price. Public domain texts are available after a quick trip to books.google.com, not after a trip to one of the few university libraries that might still have a copy of a book that went out of print in 1892.

I should also point out that spending an evening with one of your favorite books starts off with typing in the first few letters of the title and then tapping a button. Selecting a title from 75% of my paper library involves a 30 minute drive and then an unknown amount of time spent pulling cardboard boxes from my storage locker.

We still need analog books. One of my favorite books of 2010 is a thick, heavily-annotated collection of Adam Hughes’ cover art for DC Comics. Electronic books that handle that kind of content are still a full generation away. Plus, we must never forget that electronic book readers will remain out of reach to people of limited incomes for the foreseeable future. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see a neighborhood library book sale in which you’re invited to haul as many Kindles and iPads out of the basement as you wish for just $5 a bag.

So if you’re a big fan of opening a creaky book and smelling the excreta of a century’s worth of glue-nibbling insects, then don’t worry about anything. Stories of so-called “shred panels” that will decide what happens to your dogeared college paperback of “Tropic Of Cancer” are the hysterical inventions of the librarian-controlled news media.

Perhaps in five years, you’ll even be in your town’s Fourth of July parade. You and the other analog book-fanciers can march in a studious file, reading hardcovers, following right behind the row of people riding those old-timey bicycles with the huge front wheel. People get a big kick out of seeing that sort of thing, even if it confuses and scares the younger kids in the crowd.

(That paragraph was mean spirited. I’m penitent enough to acknowledge that, but not enough to actually delete it.)

(Moving on.)

It’s clear to me that e-books are finally on the same track that e-mail was on in the ?80s, the Web was back in the ?90s, and digital cameras jumped on in the first decade of the 21st-century. Very soon, they’re going to cease to be eye-catching conversation-starting pieces of technology, and will simply become parts of the landscape.

I had owned and used digital cameras for nearly fifteen years before the first time someone old enough to be my parent asked me to take their photo in front of a tourist landmark. She handed me her digital camera, and then patiently explained to me how it worked while assuring me that it’s really not all that complicated.

A tiny part of me died that sunny afternoon on Maui.

It came from a bad part of my personality that prides himself on being ahead of the technology curve. But if part of my geek soul must die so that the public’s love of reading can live and thrive, so be it.

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