Reading with the iPad: iBooks, Kindle, and Nook, oh my!
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Having my time at the computer limited by some nagging arm pain, I've been able to enjoy more of what has always been a guilty pleasure: reading for pleasure. And to my great surprise, reading on the iPad has really enhanced the experience.

Overall, I've found that eReaders like those on the iPad (and Kindle and Nook, I would assume) have some clear pluses and minuses:

  • General eReader Cons
    1. Needs electricity
    2. Subject to eBook availability
    3. Difficulty to see screen in some situations
    4. Size: reader may be larger/heaver than the physical book
    5. Loanability: can't necessarily loan books to others
    6. Style factor: might feel geeky whipping out an electronic reader in the doctor's waiting room
    7. Non-physicalness: electronic “assets” can be lost more easily than physical ones
  • General eReader Pros
    1. Has electricity: can read in darkness without additional light
    2. eBook availability: many very old books, which would otherwise be almost impossible to acquire, are now easily accessible
    3. Size: eReaders smaller than many hardcover books, and smaller than all bookshelves (but can contain a bookshelf full of material)
    4. Immediate dictionary access: just touch a word to look up its meaning. This is surprisingly beneficial
    5. Better reading posture: don't have to work to keep a physical book cracked open
    6. Intra-book searching
    7. Easy on the eyes: pick your own text size & font
    8. Non-destructive highlighting, marking, notes, etc.
    9. Immediate access to new material without regard to physical location
    10. Other electronic/online/socal tie-ins, such as character lists and other metadata via Shelfari

I've never used Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook devices, but I've used their apps on my iPad, along with Apple's own iBooks app, and have decided that one — the Kindle app — stands out as best for my particular set of needs and preferences, so it's my preferred reader when the content I want is available for it.

Update: As I was composing this post, Amazon updated their Kindle iPad app to version 2.3, and it includes a change in how the page is shown in landscape mode that makes the reader absolutely useless to me, as I'll describe below.

Update #2: To their credit, Amazon quickly pushed out version 2.3.1 which fixed the issue I was worried about, and again the app is top notch all around.

Of course, the first question that matters when speaking of an eReader is “is the book I want to read available for it?”; if not, the reader will be of no help. The next question is: “is reading enjoyable with the app?”, and the answer to that is very dependent on the person doing the reading.

This post details the features I've found important...

Easy on the Eyes: White Text on Black “Paper”

I tend to prefer reading in subdued lighting. Despite Amazon's advertising claims that the iPad is not usable in direct sunlight, I've found that I can read with it just fine in direct sunlight, except that I don't like reading anything (“e” or otherwise) in direct sunlight.

So at night, a white background is just too bright for me. I can dial down the brightness of the whole screen (and all readers make it very easy to do this), but then the text loses contrast. Apple's iBooks reader allows only white and sepia backgrounds, and I used the iBooks/sepia until I tried the Kindle app, and found its night mode:

Kindle on iPad  — My Preferred Night Mode

This is a passage from Jimmy Carter's White House Diary (e-version at Amazon) where the non-italic portions are verbatim from his diary 30+ years ago, and the italic portions are his modern annotations that add context or clarification.

Barnes & Noble's Nook app has even more ways to customize the look and feel and style of the presentation....

Nook on iPad: Lots of Customization
but at what cost!?

At first I was really impressed with Nook's customizations, but eventually I realized that it comes at a huge cost. Consider the same passage from White House Diary (e-version at Barnes & Noble) on the Nook app.... the formatting (italic vs. non) is lost:

Nook on iPad  — A Useless Night Mode
italic formatting has been lost!

I had started to read this book on the Nook, and was having a horrible time figuring out what text was from 30 years ago and what was modern, and was shocked to find the italic formatting when I eventually checked the same book in the Kindle app.

It turns out that if you “use publisher settings” in the Nook app, it'll revert to exactly the way the publisher specifies (which for this book is black text on a white background, of some specific font and specific size), and in this situation, the italic formatting is not lost.

This is an absolute deal-breaker for me. If you always like black text on a white background, of the size and font that the publisher picks, this would be a non-issue for you.

For reference, the Kindle app's customizations are fewer, but at least using them doesn't dork the formatting:

Kindle App's Formatting Options

Also for reference, Apple's iBooks customizations are down right paltry. White House Diary isn't available on iBooks, so here's a screenshot showing the options with a different book:

iBooks App's Formatting Options

Easy on the Eyes: One Wide Column

I've found, for whatever reason, that I very strongly prefer to read with the iPad in landscape mode (more wide than tall, like the screenshots above), with just one column of text across the page, as shown in all the screenshots above but the last. iBooks doesn't offer the option, and in Nook you can get it only by tricking the app (by setting the font size to be huge, then setting it back to a reasonable size).

In Kindel, as of version 2.3.1, you can choose between a one- and two-column display.


The black background and one-column landscape view are the big items that make reading a pleasure for me, but another important add-on is the built-in dictionary... just touch a word and get the definition. With iBooks or the Nook app, you touch the word, then select “view definition” to get the definition, but in Kindle the definition shows up immediately at the bottom of the screen, without requiring another click. The font is small and it goofs up if the definition has certain kinds of formatting, but in those cases you can click again for “full definition”, so it's certainly no worse than the others. The Kindle app includes a huge English dictionary as a separate item in your Kindle bookshelf, for free, that can be used as a stand-alone dictionary. This is a big plus not included with iBooks or Nook.

In any case, one click or two, having a dicationary handy is just amazing. I've been reading Clavel's Shogun (an amazing novel I first read 20 years ago) and find myself looking up on average one word per page. I don't need to look up any of the words... I understand enough to enjoy the book, but when it mentions “a brace of quail”, for example, I completely get the gist, but I also wonder what exactly “brace” means in this case (answer: exactly two). A built-in dictionary makes this kind of learning effortless and enjoyable.

The Nook reader's dictionary seems to be much less developed than the Kindle's.... it doesn't have entries for a lot of words.

Other Stuff

The Nook reader would be much better if they fixed the formatting issue, but it also has the annoying habit of phoning home when you launch it, resulting in a five-to-ten second delay before the book comes up. Annoying.

Also annoying with Nook is that, while you can download book samples immediately after creating a free account, you can't download free books without providing a credit card. (I'm not sure how it is with Amazon, since I've had a credit card associated with my Amazon account for years; iBooks needs nothing extra.)

All three apps have a lot of old free books, but it's a mixed bag about what's available where. Some books that are free elsewhere cost a dollar on Nook, for example.

All 11 comments so far, oldest first...

Kindle, as in spindle and candle, not kindel. I was not sure if you were doing it on purpose. ;->) Lovely post…

I’m am so freakin’ dyslexic about EL vs. LE, and so I knew to pay attention, and got it exactly wrong. Thanks. Fixed all 24 occurrences. —Jeffrey

— comment by EZ on October 6th, 2010 at 8:51pm JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

You really should try out a real eReader. Three of the cons you listed really only apply to LCD based “eReaders”. My Sony Pocket edition reader weighs less than this 300 page paperback I have next to me. Battery wise it lasts seemingly forever, as in I only have to charge it every few weeks. Viewing angles are also a concern of the past with eInk or like technologies.

As well with any of the modern eReaders you are not tied down to the provider’s ebook store. Calibre is a very mature piece of software capable of syncing nearly any book format to the last majority of devices.

Now granted you will have to give up this reading in the dark habit. eReaders don’t have backlights nor do they need them in anything but very low-light situations.

Anyway try out a proper ereader. Nook, Kindle, or any other modern eReader will be heads and shoulders better than a program on a tablet.

I would like to try one some day, but I very much enjoy reading in subdued lighting, and it’s always been a hassle getting a light that illuminates the page but doesn’t bother my eyes, so using the (old) version of Kindle app on iPad is essentially perfection for me… unless some other reader includes a neck massage, I can’t imagine it being better. But if I ever meet someone with one of those readers, I’ll definitely give it a try. —Jeffrey

— comment by Warll on October 7th, 2010 at 12:48am JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I LOVE reading on my ipad – far more then I could have originally thought. As basic as it is, I like reading on the ibook reader, portrait mode, bright white. Even at normal bright settings, it’s not too bright for me reading in the dark, and the light doesn’t keep Marty awake. AND I don’t need reading glasses.

I found some desktop software that I really like for managing ebooks –
Some of the things I find fun are probably useless time-wasters – I like to use calibre to put actual covers on the free Gutenberg project books, as few have them when downloaded. You can find a lot of out of copyright books on the internet in text file format only – calibre can format them into the correct file for any of the readers I have. I also plan on using it – and this may take a while – to put Dad’s family history booklet into ebook format.

Last evening, I had an actual real book to read, and Marty was shocked. Unfortunately, it looks like it will be a while before the licensing rights get ironed out so that libraries can lend an ebook like they do audiobooks (they stay on your system 21 days, then self-delete so someone else can check out the copy). If I bought every book I read, we’d have to take out a second mortgage and kiss the kid’s college education funds goodbye. So I’ll continue alternating between ebooks & library books for a while yet.

— comment by Marcina (USA) on October 7th, 2010 at 1:07am JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,
I don’t often disagree with you, but in the case of the 2.3 upgrade to the Kindle iPad, I do. You now have the option of a single page [and you can lock it in Portrait] or a book-like appearance in Landscape [and you can lock that in as well]

I have 2 Kindles, a gen one and a DX. Most of what has been said about the iPad and Kindle are accurate in my opinion. They both work well under the optimum circumstances. Paper books have their problems as well. Storage being one of them.

Anyway, just thought I would comment. There is so much going on in the digital photo world [and I have added a HF S21 to my stable of cameras] the I am just running as fast as my 72 year old body will allow to keep up with the younger folks.

I’m not sure what you mean by “disagree”, Mel. Do you disagree when I say that I prefer 1-column landscape mode, or do you disagree when I suggest that it should remain an option? If the former, well, I can assure you that I know my own opinion and I have presented it accurately :-), and if the latter, why would you think it proper to explicitly disallow someone who wants a 1-column landscape mode from having it? If you merely meant to say “personally, I do like the 2-column landscape mode”, well, you’ll find no disagreement from me! —Jeffrey

— comment by Mel Lammers on October 7th, 2010 at 2:23am JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Purchased the $149 Nook for my trip to Japan this year. There is no landscape mode. The touch screen comes down to that love or hate thing.

You make a really good point about the daylight reading thing. -> The neat thing about the true e-book readers is that they do reflect light similar to a paper page and outside they look great but its not often that you get to read outside. Seriously.

On the geek factor -> every person I saw on the train from Himeji all the way to Osaka had their head buried in some cellphone screen. And that iPAD not only competes with the e-readers it actually is keeping the door open for them.

Its also worth mentioning especially for men/geeks/gadget-ophiles, when you buy an Ipad/Nook/Kindle that desire to justify your purchase makes you download a lot of books AND actually read them.

Thank you for your incite.

— comment by Ron Evans on October 7th, 2010 at 4:32am JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Nothing that a little perl could not fix in one fell swoop, right, Mr. RegEx?

As of me, I am controlling myself not to get the iPad until the second generation (yes, the one with the camera, as in the latest generation iPod Touch and iPhone) comes out… My Kindle can be credited with bringing back my old reading habits, but who knows what new habits will the iPad bring?

— comment by EZ on October 7th, 2010 at 9:09am JST (13 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

The deal breaker for me with the eInk readers is the HORRID black / ghost page turns. Some eReaders are shorter than others, but the Sony’s, Kindle’s, Nook’s, Kobo’s all have them and it is too great a distraction and irritation to pay such a high price for such poor technology.

The LCD readers such as the Aluratek and eJetco are MUCH nicer to read and page turns are near instant without the jarring blank out to black page flips of eInk.

Fortunately the technology will improve and more importantly the prices will plummet. I will not be buying any of these over priced eReader / Tablet gadgets until both criteria are met.

— comment by Harold on November 24th, 2010 at 1:10am JST (13 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

My impression is that most Kindle users very quickly cease to notice Harold’s “HORRID black page turns”. IMHO, describing them like that is rather an overstatement, but I’ve only been using my Kindle 3 for a month or so; my wife hers, likewise.

I don’t notice the page turns, but perhaps I have unwittingly developed synchronised blinking. In all honesty, they are little different from the effect of turning a page in a printed book, as far as [not] disrupting one’s reading. I would only notice them if I were reading something truly boring !

Many suggest that, as well as being easier to read in bright light (outdoors) an eInk screen is also easier on the eye than a backlit screen – it certainly is for me. But I am sure that to some extent each individual’s eyesight has a bearing on that (I am strongly near-sighted) and it may simply be that some people’s eyes cope better with one type of screen than the other. Horses for courses.

— comment by Peter in Wales on November 25th, 2010 at 7:23pm JST (13 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Great article, however, I found two areas that aren’t quite correct:

You wrote that the iPad does not offer a free dictionary. It is available either on the bookshelf or as a stand alone app by downloading free from either the iBook store or the app store.

Also, you wrote that you only have the white or sepia options on the iPad, and no night/white text on a black background mode. You can enable white text on a black background in the settings menu, under accessibility options.

I see eight iPad apps by Apple (iBooks, Keynote, MobileMe, etc.), but no dictionary among them. I didn’t know about the accessibility options, so thanks for that, but it seems a bit much to have to exit the app and change the display mode of the entire device just to get the pleasant reading environment that they could make available with but the slightest effort. —Jeffrey

— comment by Rob on February 27th, 2011 at 2:14am JST (13 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

Hollywood, FL USA (2012) … Enjoyed reading your blog and the comments. .. I’m reaching the end of my backlog of “real” books and am venturing into the world of tablet based e-readers. .. 1) I would be interested in any comments based on newer technology and on the specs for the new Nook HD, Nook HD+, Kindle HD 8.9, and iPad mini. .. 2) The dictionary look-up is a feature I would use all the time —- but I tend to read alot of the translated “classics” which have English and foreign language text. How does this work – can one select the dictionary to use? Does it become cumbersome? .. Thanks!

Good questions, but I don’t know. I use only Kindle on my iPad/iPhone, and only with English-language books. —Jeffrey

— comment by Cate on October 28th, 2012 at 5:01am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I have an old Nook reader, and loved it. It now has battery issues. (Yes, I know I can replace it!) I particularly loved the feature of a Find File when reading mysteries with many characters, as I tend to forget who “Marvin” was. I could easily find all the previous references to that character to refresh my memory of who he was.

Now, I’m using an iPad Air 2, reading iBooks. When I press on a character’s name, I can only get a Dictionary and Wikipedia, not a Find File. So, two questions:

1) Is there a way to search a character’s previous name reference using iBooks?
2) I have downloaded the Nook App for iPad, but haven’t been able to download a ePUB book from Overdrive as yet. How do I do that? Barnes and Noble help has not been of much use, so far.


— comment by Don on January 14th, 2015 at 5:47am JST (9 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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