We've just got our hands on the brand-new Kindle 3G, which boasts over-the-air downloads, and an E Ink display to die for (should that be dye for?). Playing with this wordy new gadget, we figured we should pit the latest high-tech reading machines against each other to discover which -- if any -- of these miracle machines is worth investing in. Let's meet the contenders...
The Kindle 3G is a compelling new version of Amazon's successful ebook reader. With built-in, free 3G, it's able to funnel books straight out of the sky and into your device no matter where you are in the world. That means no fiddly PC syncing -- you can build up your mobile library on the move. Yours for £150, which is much less than the previous.
The iPad needs little introduction, but Apple's tablet is marketed partly as an ebook reader, with its large 9.7-inch touchscreen and iBooks store. But all the extra tech -- swipey browsing, music and video -- comes at a premium. A new iPad will set you back at least £400, and more if you want the 3G version.
Snappy name, eh? Sony deserves credit for avoiding sticky DRM issues with its ebook readers, and for cramming an SD card slot into its devices too. Its latest creation, the PRS-650, offers both the benefits of E Ink technology and a touchscreen, for nimbly flicking through your novels, magazines and whatnot.
Like all respectable ebook readers, the Kindle 3G uses an E Ink display, which measures 6 inches on the diagonal. This rather clever bit of tech incorporates many tiny microcapsules hidden beneath the screen, filled with negatively and positively charged particles. By applying positive and negative charges, different parts of the screen will appear white or black.
There are several advantages to this technology. Firstly, because it requires only a tiny charge, E Ink is extremely easy on a device's batteries. Once it's been flashed on to the Kindle's display, an image can remain there pretty much indefinitely. In practical terms, the only time the Kindle draws on its lithium-ion polymer batteries is the moment you turn the page. Amazon reckons you'll get a whole month of use off a full charge, though if you're using the 3G every day, expect reduced battery life.
This new Kindle uses E Ink Pearl -- a different type of screen with noticeably higher contrast, which makes for deeper blacks and an easier reading experience.
The 3G downloads over Amazon's Whispernet network is the newest Kindle's greatest asset. One striking benefit to reading actual paper books is they don't require any fiddly syncing or file transfer to get the words in front of your eyes. Kindle 3G does succeed in reducing this painful process -- book preview and purchase can all be handled from the Kindle itself, and downloading books usually takes only a few seconds. Additionally, there's a crude Web browser pre-loaded on to the Kindle, though we would not recommend you try using this for any serious surfing.
The downside is Amazon is extremely tight with its DRM restrictions. The most popular, open format for ebooks is called EPUB, and uses the file extension .epub. Amazon doesn't sell books from its store in this format, preferring instead its own proprietary format, .azw, which won't work on other devices.
The Kindle itself won't play nice with .epub files either. So in short, you're pretty much limited to what's on the Amazon book store, and the Kindle itself doesn't support the most popular open ebook format. Disappointing.
We know there's a great deal more to the iPad than its ebook reading capabilities, but for the purposes of this comparison we're going to focus on this one aspect of Apple's tablet.
In terms of sheer readability, there are pros and cons to using an iPad for your literary mind-expansion. On the plus side, the iPad's 9.7-inch screen is huge -- much larger than most paperbacks. Text is rendered very clearly, and the iPad's capacitive touchscreen and powerful processor makes flipping pages on the Kindle or iBooks app extremely pleasurable and smooth. Overall, it's a much slicker and less intrusive process than the black-and-white flashes you'll experience when you turn pages on the Kindle or other E Ink readers.
On the other hand, staring at the iPad's super-bright display for a prolonged length of time is likely to cause your eyes to melt out of your head, and drip on to the iPad itself, leaking into the headphone socket and causing a lethal electrical explosion that destroys your whole house. Okay, you might get eyestrain.
Then there's the sunlight issue. If you want to read books on holiday, it's a safe bet you'll want to do so outside. Unfortunately the iPad's display is all but invisible once exposed to the harsh glare of sunlight. That's not a problem for E Ink displays, as this snarky Kindle ad so neatly demonstrates. We also think the iPad might be just a little heavy for comfortable reading, at 730g (for the 3G model). That weight is largely due to the battery on board however, which keeps the iPad running for an impressively long time -- although nowhere near what the Kindle manages.
iBooks does download books in EPUB format however, and the iBook store is a pleasure to use, with its intuitive, touchscreen-friendly interface. With the iPad's wealth of connectivity options (Wi-Fi and 3G or just Wi-Fi depending on which model you own), downloading those books on the go is usually pretty simple too.
If the Kindle emphasises a simple, comfortable reading experience and the iPad puts its focus on a slick interface, the PRS-650 is a kind of halfway house. Sporting a 6-inch E Ink Pearl screen just like the Kindle 3G, text looks excellent on this device and is readable in bright sunlight. The whole shebang weighs only 220g, so it's eminently portable. It also sports a touchscreen, for that tactile page-flipping sensation that the iPad brings to the table.
With an SD slot for loading up your books, control is handed over to the user. Download your books, and the PRS-650 will load 'em up. This Reader supports EPUB, so you can acquire your books from a wider number of sources, and move them around, copy or duplicate them however you please. That's not the kind of approach Sony usually takes, so the tech monolith deserves some recognition for embracing that kind of openness.
Unfortunately, what the PRS-650 is missing is connectivity. With no 3G or Wi-Fi, you'll have to plug in your device via USB to fill it up with lovely books. That's disappointing, because the simplicity of downloading books over a Web connection on the Kindle 3G or the iPad is a major selling point, and crucially removes the hassle from managing your ebook collection.
Choosing a winner
Picking a winner is tricky, but we're going to plump for the Kindle 3G. There are things about this device that annoy us -- mostly the fact that any books you purchase are DRM'd up the wazoo, and it lacks support for EPUB books. Still, the ability to download books over the air is fantastic, and pretty much essential for modern ebook readers. Finally, it's lightweight, easy and comfortable to read, and reasonably priced at £150.