Hands-on: The Apple iPad as e-book reader

At first glance, the new Apple iPad includes most of the features we've been complaining are missing from the current generation of specialized e-book readers, namely the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Check out our hands-on video.

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Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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Dan Ackerman
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Update (10:00pm PT): Just hours before the Apple iPad is set to go on sale, Amazon has made the iPad-optimized version of its Kindle app available. Like the iPhone version, it's free, and can access any Kindle books purchased through your Amazon account. We have not had a chance to load the new iPad version of the Kindle reader on an iPad yet, but screenshots indicate it had a similar bookshelf feature and page-turning animations. This is a surprising development, as Amazon had previously claimed they would not have the app available on April 3. Original post continues below.

Watch this: The Apple iPad as e-book reader

At first glance, the new Apple iPad includes most of the features we've been complaining are missing from the current generation of specialized e-book readers, namely the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

If one were to build from scratch a device for reading books and periodicals onscreen, there's a good chance it would include a touch screen for navigating and flipping pages; a color display for illustrations, photos, and book covers; and--infrequently mentioned but still important--the ability to download and read e-books from several different sources.

The current Kindle DX has a display size similar to the iPad's, at 9.7-inches. But from a features standpoint, the iPad blows away the Kindle. In addition to its color screen, it's got a laundry list of functions above and beyond its e-book reader capabilities: a robust (albeit Flash-less) Web browser; built-in iTunes audio and video playback; photo viewing; and access to the entire library of tens of thousands of iPhone apps (let alone new, iPad-optimized ones that are just coming online).

Some first impressions when comparing the reading experience on both devices:

The screen: The Kindle's e-paper display has plenty of fans, with many agreeing with Amazon's sales pitch that the flat matte screen is easier on the eyes than backlit displays. It also makes the device readable in brightly lit environments, including direct sunlight. By contrast, the bright, colorful display on the iPad really pops at first glance. And it's backlit, so you can read in complete darkness. The question is: will that remain comfortable over long periods? During our short time with the device, we found the iPad's highly reflective glass screen to be problematic--we were always shifting angles to avoid seeing the reflection of overhead lights. (The iPhone may have the same issue, but it seems less problematic on its smaller screen.) Like many things, this is going to be a personal preference--but we'd give the Kindle (and other E-ink readers) the nod for brightly lit environments, while the iPad wins for darker ones. Meanwhile, if color is a necessity, the iPad wins hands-down.

A closer look at the Apple iPad's features (photos)

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Software--iBooks versus Kindle Reader: We were able to load up the Apple iBook reader on our iPad and we were impressed with many of the iBook features, including its browsable collection of book covers, the ability to see two pages at once in landscape mode, and the easy-to-use timeline at the bottom, which shows you the page count as you fast-forward through the book.

There's a cool page-turning animation as well, but that may get old rather quickly. Still, it beats the full-screen page flash that happens when you turn a page on a Kindle.

The iPhone version of the Kindle app works as well, blown up to fit the larger iPad screen (and an iPad-optimized version is no doubt forthcoming). With that, you'll also get touch control, much as you did on the iPhone, but without the cool animations. Stanza, an excellent source for free books, also works--but like the Kindle app, it's not yet optimized for the bigger screen.

The Apple iPad next to the Kindle DX. Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, that raises the other interesting point: on the iPad, you can actually choose from a wide variety of e-book vendors: Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, just to name a few. The Kindle hardware only accesses Amazon's store, while the Nook only works with B&N. That leaves the iPad as a much more flexible solution--Kindle owners, for instance, can get immediate access to all of the books they've already purchased. However, your're left trusting that Apple will continue to welcome new vendors and updated apps as things move forward. There's no knowing if--or when--Apple will veto new features in an upcoming Kindle release, for instance, or pull the app's availability altogether.

3G vs. Wi-Fi: 3G versions of the iPad will be available soon, but they carry a $130 price premium over the Wi-Fi only versions--and you need to sign up for a monthly service plan as well (albeit without the need for a contract). The Kindle's free 3G service certainly wins the day here--though we're sure that service won't continue to be free when and if future Kindles get more robust, iPad-like features such as Web browsing and media streaming.

Annotation: Hard-core e-book readers (and researchers) like the Kindle's annotation feature (which is also available on the Kindle app). So far, it looks like iBooks doesn't offer a similar feature.

Magazines and newspapers: Collectively, we call these "periodicals" in the publishing business. The Kindle has a wide selection, but they're limited to black-and-white and often stripped down from their print equivalents. (Also, the current iPhone/iPad version of the Kindle App is limited to books only.) The iPad's color screen is a huge win here, making magazine and newspapers much more vibrant. Likewise, choices abound on the iPad: many publications already have standalone apps, or will soon. And if they don't, you can just pop open the Web browser and visit their site directly.

At the end of the day, it's a split decision, with both devices scoring some victories. The iPad's color screen and much greater flexibility for all sorts of content make it a compelling choice. We think the Kindle DX, at this point, is far too overpriced for what it delivers. For those avid readers who prefer the matte E-ink screen, however, the smaller Kindle remains a worthwhile alternative--though you might want to hold out for Amazon to cut the price even further.