Review of iPad eBook Reader Apps: The Kindle, Nook, & iBooks

An example of eReading a book with the iPad from Apple's guided tour video

There are a popular few iPad apps that we hear about. There are tens of thousands of apps in the iTunes’ app store. There are an overwhelming number that get overlooked, including eBook apps. We hear about the apps like the Kindle, Nook, and iBooks when it comes to heavy-duty reading, but have you heard about Kobo, Stanza, or uBooks xl? Most likely, if you have, you don’t know anyone that uses them anyways.

The eBook apps are abundant, really. Go search for them yourself. There are many on iTunes now. The reason that we have a top two or three favorite apps in this important category is because they truly deserve the attention. As of yet, the likes of Kobo have not impressed the early adopters (no offense, Borders—I tried it out, too). They are feature-less or feature-few. They simply are not as capable as the popular eBook apps. In this case, popular opinion has good insight into the matter.

With that introduction, I’ll give you my take of the top three popular ones: Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBooks, and B&N’s Nook.

What about the Kindle App?

Kindle’s app is simpler than I would like. The color options (all two of them) of the background and text are shades of gray, black, white, and sepia tone. The text has the most limiting options possible. There is only one font and it is serif. Thus, the image that you see of the text and background combined are as bland as generic cardboard.

In it’s favor, you can make bookmarks, take notes, use a dictionary, make highlights, and search text. Naturally, you can navigate by way of a table of contents (of course, these are expected features no eReader should be without, so these are nothing special). It is a solid app without any bugs I’ve encountered. The sepia tone color option is appealing to the eyes, but after reading for awhile you don’t see the color anymore (after your eye get used to it—you’ll just have to take my word for it).

Examples of performing functions in the Kindle app

The “Home” screen where you can add-to, take-away, and navigate your books is passable. It is much more aesthetically pleasing than the book-reading experience itself. Still, readers spend very little time on the app’s Home, so its qualities are less relevant.

Something I do like about the app is where there is an option under the Info menu to “Provide Feedback.” It is nice to know they care about the opinions of serious readers. We readers should be heard in regard to the apps, and we should give feedback to the apps that are important to us.

So the Kindle app gets ✭✭½ out of five.

I might seem hard to impress, but I really view Amazon’s products, more often than not, as the Wal-Mart of the Internet. The Kindle devices are slicker than what Wal-Mart would likely make if they gave an eBook reading device a shot, I’ll grant you, but Kindle’s app simply doesn’t impress. It feels too generic and utilitarian apart from the pretty Home screen background.

What About the B&N Nook App?

My Favorite. Really, I have a hard time understanding users that prefer the Kindle app over B&N’s Nook. The Nook has the most easy to use variety of options for background and text colors. You can choose from several fonts—both serif and san serif. You can save “themes” of those colors and font combinations that you can switch between for your reading pleasure at anytime.

Where this is especially handy is when you are reading your book in incandescent light, then later reading in fluorescent light, then later reading in daylight outside on the front porch, or in bed after dark with the lights out. You can make the background dark or light, so this means it gives you the best choices for all lighting conditions; not to mention, that you can pick colors that suit the mood you’re in. If yellow text against a dark pink background is your thing, you can do so.

An example of managing Nook's colors while the iPad is turned to landscape view

The Nook does come with all the standard eReader tools like the dictionary, notes, highlights, searches, etc. Again, I take these for granted. Any good eReader should include such tools before it is even considered. Serious readers that read a lot understand this.

Of the three apps I’m reviewing, I have only encountered bugs (a few) with the Nook, but I do believe the developers have made it more reliable over the last few updates so that I have had no trouble whatsoever in the last three months.

As far as the “Library” screen is concerned, I believe the way it flows is more user-driven than the Kindle’s “Home” menu. The layout, sub-menus, and commands you can make are self-evident to beginners.

An example of a Nook user's ultra clean library of various book titles

Where the Nook suffers most (and this isn’t much suffering at that) is in buying and shopping for books. Note that the Kindle Amazon store rigmarole is as difficult as the Nook’s. You have to leave these book apps, shop online in the iPad’s web browser, then be redirected to the app again—if you can find the link—to start your reading. This jumping back and forth process is awkward and I’m not crazy about shopping for eBooks on their stores. So, to contrast, the apps are incredibly easy to use when compared to shopping for them.

So the Nook app gets ✭✭✭✭ out of five, and I recommend it as the app for your eReading.

B&N Nook is the underdog of these three apps. It isn’t as popular, but B&N are giving it a noble effort (no pun intended). Shopping for books via BN.com seems more book-lover centric than the Amazon webstore. Nook’s feature-rich tools are only getting better with their free updates to the app. It’s hard to beat the Nook for the foreseeable future, so long as developments continue at this pace.

What About Apple’s iBooks App?

Apple’s book reader is book-friendly, easy to use, the most aesthetically pleasing, and oh-so Mac like. It feels good reading with it, and the tools that come with it are standard issue. Nothing is lacking within the fully-functional iBookstore just on the other side of the reader’s virtual bookcase. So why isn’t the iBook app my favorite?

Apple keeps it simple and consistent. The reading of a book looks like a real book. You see the edge of the book and the printed pages. Turning the pages looks like turning pages in a real book. The drawback to this elegant look-and-feel is that they don’t have custom colors. Customizing the text and background of the reader’s page view is almost as limited as the Kindle’s. It would look silly to change the color of the background since it clearly is meant to look like real paper in a authentically hard-bound book. If you want a dark navy blue page background and off-white text, it would simply ruin the virtual book appearance. Thus, Apple doesn’t allow color customization, like the Nook app does.

On the left, the iBookstore; on the right, the page view of an iBook

This would not be a deal-breaker if it weren’t for reading in the dark. The Nook and Kindle apps let you invert the page and text contrast so the page is black and the text is white—or in the Nook’s case, whatever color you choose (I think Nook’s color options are an amazing plus for the reader’s experience). This is very readible in bed at night with all the lights off. The iBook app simply isn’t pleasant to read in the dark. You can dramatically dim the screen, but no matter how dark you make it, the text will be black and the background page will be light to dark gray. This is simply not reader-friendly, as many readers do read in the dark in bed on a frequent basis.

Where Apple makes up for this inconvenience is their iBookstore shopping experience. It is lightyears ahead of the Nook and Amazon Kindle stores. I would dare say the shopping experience is nigh to perfect. It is certainly the ideal. Even so, shopping for books isn’t half as important to readers as actually reading the books.

So the iBook app gets ✭✭✭½ out of five.

It get’s a high rating in spite of the lacking color and inverted contrast options because the app is otherwise so robust. Any user can pick an iPad up for the first time and go through the book shopping process and be reading a book in a jiffy. You have access to editing the info on your book titles from iTunes on your Mac as well. This is a substantial plus being able to add your personal touches, I think. You may have to make use of this feature before you understand how handy it can be.

Where the Apps All have Room for Improvement

A lot of critics have derided Apple for the limited number of books in their iBookstore. I believe this is a silly argument since Apple is year’s behind Amazon and B&N in getting the cooperation of publishers. If all three businesses eBook stores were launched at the same time, most-likely they would all suffer from limited selections. Apple is getting better in terms of what they carry slowly, but surely. I don’t think this will be an issue any longer by the end of 2011.

As I’ve stressed, the Kindle’s and Nook’s shopping experiences should improve dramatically. Enough said about this above.

It is also important that the resolution of the iPad device advance. The screen is readable, but it is also true that e-Ink screens are much more readable. To stay competitive, Apple’s second generation iPad will likely take on the new resolution technology the iPhone 4 uses called retina display. This will fix this issue.

Another example of eReading iBooks from Apple's iBook guided tour video

On another note, if Apple were not making multitasking come to the iPad, I would have suggested there be a quick way to switch back and forth from the iPod(music) app and the eReader apps. Lots of us readers listen to music while we read, naturally. Controlling the music quickly without leaving the book is important. I cannot wait for the multitasking functionality that is due by the end of November.

But I am straying away from my subject matter. These are hardware and iOS issues—not eReader app issues.

Really, I think to make top-notch eReading apps, these three power-players just need to address the issues already mentioned:

  • Adjustable colors for text and backgrounds should be standard issue
  • Rebuild (if need be) the eBook stores for Nook and Kindle to make them shopper-friendly
  • Optimizing resolution of the hardware will improve the eReading experience
  • Make switching to your music player app easy by not taking the reader away from the book app

Update October 11th: It occurred to me just now that another improvement could be made with Wikipedia and Google searches within these apps. When you are reading from a book in any of these three apps you have the option to search a word or phrase from the book in Wikipedia and Google. The problem with conducting the search is that all three apps are left to make the searches with a web browser app.

Ideally, you should be able to stay in the book app, see a new window over the book with the searches results, and be able to close that search window and be right back on the page of your book—without leaving the book at all in this process. You can do similar feats in social networking apps on the iPad.

Conclusion

For the meantime, I am sticking with the B&N Nook app. I await color management for iBooks, and if that day comes, the iBook app will likely win my heart. Kindle doesn’t stand a chance if it doesn’t seriously improve the webstore, add color-management, and rethink the Home screen.

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2 thoughts on “Review of iPad eBook Reader Apps: The Kindle, Nook, & iBooks

  1. I guess it also depends on which bookstore you buy your books from & which format you’re locked into. Since my family shares a Kindle account (and all the books in the account), it follows that on the iPad, Kindle is the main eReader since we don’t really buy books from B&N or iBooks (unless they’re free).

  2. Good point. I do not share an account with other family members at this time, but if I did, this would be a consideration. Another thought that I didn’t mention in the post is that you have the option to shop around in the various eBookstores for the best price. The prices do vary for eBook editions of iBooks, Kindle books, and Nook books.

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