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The Best eBook App for iPad: iBooks or Amazon Kindle?

April 5, 2010

As some of you may know, I’ve been a devoted Kindle user for quite a while now. I have a Kindle 2 ereader and I use the Kindle iPhone app quite frequently. Since I heard about Apple’s iPad, I’ve been wondering how Apple’s iBooks would compare with Amazon’s Kindle app for iPad.

This review is split into five pages. The first page covers what iBooks has to offer and the second covers Amazon’s Kindle app. The third page compares the two and the fourth page reveals the winner. The last page contains an image gallery of screenshots found in the review.

Please note that this review only covers the iBooks and Kindle apps for the iPad. This is not a review of the iPad versus the Kindle reader. There are pluses and minuses to either hardware device, and examining them goes beyond the scope of this review.

Also, while I think that other companies such as Barnes and Noble will also offer competitive ebook apps, my money is on Amazon and Apple being the dominant providers of ebooks on the iPad platform. Both companies have the money and resources to compete fiercely and I suspect that consumers will gravitate toward one or two ebook apps for their reading needs on the iPad. So that’s why I put both apps head to head in this review.

That said, let’s take a look at iBooks.

The iBooks Interface
When I first saw iBooks in the videos on Apple’s site, I was seriously impressed. It looked like a neat ebook app and I found after trying it that my initial impression wasn’t wrong. iBooks has the look and feel of a typical, slick Apple application. You notice that from the minute you start using it.

When you first start iBooks, you see a bookshelf with a copy of Winnie the Pooh.

All of my books on my iBooks bookshelf, including some samples I downloaded to check out before buying the entire books.

Click the book and it opens up with a neat animation that lets you know that you’re in for a real treat for the eyes. At the top of your screen you’ll see the Library, Table of Contents, Screen Brightness, Font and Search icons. Apple has smartly made it very easy to adjust screen brightness right from within iBooks.

You can easily adjust screen brightness from within the iBooks apps.

You can easily adjust font size or choose different fonts. Font selections include:

Times New Roman

Clicking the Library icon takes you back to the bookshelf view, where you can see all of your books. From the bookshelf you can also click the Store icon (more on that later) or you can change how you view your books. The default view is of books on a bookshelf. But, at some point, you may wish to change to a more traditional list. Just click one of the buttons in the upper right corner to change the view. You can also click the Edit button to delete a book.

If you change the view to the list, note that at the bottom of the page you can have your books listed in the following way:


Clicking the Table of Contents icon takes you to a page where you can view the table of contents and your bookmarks. If you click it again, you’ll be taken back to where you were before. Or you can simply click the Resume bookmark in the upper right corner.

Click the Table of Contents icon to view your book’s TOC.

The search icon lets you type in a word and will list where the word appears in each chapter. You can click on a result and you’ll be taken to that page of the book. If you click the search icon again, you’ll see the results listed again and you can make another choice to hop to a different part of the book. The search results menu also has two additional buttons at the bottom: Search Google and Search Wikipedia. Clicking either of them will open Safari and take you to search results in Google or Wikipedia.

While reading text, you can tap a word to bring up a popup menu with three choices: Dictionary, Bookmark or Search. Choosing Dictionary will get you a definition in a pop-up menu. Choosing Bookmark will bookmark that word and turn it orange, and choosing Search will open the search menu. If you tap the bookmarked word again you can unbookmark it or change the highlight to yellow, green, blue, pink or purple.

If you want to make the controls at the top and bottom of the screen disappear, just tap anywhere on the screen once. To bring them back, tap again.

Navigation & Landscape Mode
You turn the page by tapping the screen or you can grab the page and slowly turn it, just like you would with a real book. The page turning animation is great and helps give you the impression you are reading a print book. You can also navigate by sliding the bar at the bottom of your screen forward or backward. There’s also an indicator in the bottom right corner that tells you how many pages you have left to go in a chapter.

Landscape mode is even cooler than the default portrait view. Your book splits into two pages, one on the left and one on the right. It’s as close to reading a print book as you’ll probably get on an electronic device. Personally, I enjoyed the two-page view more than the single page view. It just felt more like reading a print book to me than the single page view.

The iBooks Store
If you click the Store icon when looking at your bookshelf, the bookshelf turns around like a secret passage and the iBooks store appear. This is a very neat animation and, while it’s not necessary, it’s indicative of the level of detail that Apple has applied to the iBooks app. They clearly wanted people to have a great experience and it shows in little details like the store loading animation.

The iBooks store is slick and directly integrated into the iBooks app.

Once the store loads, you’ll see Library and Categories icons in the top left and a search box in the top right. Click the Library button to go back to your library or click Categories to browse the iBooks store via category. The search box obviously lets you search for a particular title.

If you find a book that you’re interested in, click it and a menu will popup that will give you more information about the book. The menu contains the book’s price, customer ratings & reviews, description and other useful information. Click the price button to buy the book and another animation will occur that switches the view back to your bookshelf, with your new book appearing on your bookshelf even as the book’s content is downloaded to your iPad.

Click a book in the store and a menu loads with more information and reviews of the book.

If you aren’t sure about a book, you can opt to have a sample downloaded to your bookshelf. You’ll see the word “Sample” on the book when it appears on your bookshelf. Once the sample has finished downloading, you can start reading to see if you want to buy the book. At the end of the sample, you can opt to click the price button to buy it or, click the Buy icon in the upper left corner (near the Library and Table of Contents icons) at any time while reading the sample book.

The iBooks store is genuinely fun to use and downloading samples can quickly become addictive. Beware though, it may end up costing you some serious money as you could end up buying way more books then you expected. But, hey, you can never have too many books, right?

Amazon Kindle for iPad
Amazon released its Kindle for iPad app shortly before the iPad itself was released. So it’s clear that this is an early effort and that should be borne in mind when considering it. For a first release for the iPad, it hits most of the marks it needed to hit to be a credible alternative to iBooks

The Kindle App Interface
When I first opened the app, I noticed the neat pic of  boy reading a book under a tree. Amazon has added a little bit of graphical flair to its Kindle for iPad app though it doesn’t match Apple’s slick bookshelf animation. Still, it has its appeal and reminded me of the wonder a child can always find in a good book.

The interface is reasonably well organized, on the home page there’s the Amazon logo in the upper right corner, along with a Shop In Kindle Store in the upper right (more on that later). At the bottom of the screen there are two view options that let you view either larger icons of your books or smaller icons along with the title and author of each book.

The home screen contains a list of all of your Kindle books.

There’s another link next to those two options that’s slightly odder. It’s labeled as “Showing Home” and if you click it a popup menu comes up that lets you switch between Home and Archived Items. If you are an existing Kindle customer and you want to download books you already own, just click the Archived Items option and then you’ll see a list of all the books you’ve already bought from Amazon. Just click each book and it will be downloaded for reading on your iPad.

After the Showing Home link there’s another link that lets you sort your books by Recent, Title or Author. There is also a sync icon and an information icon. Clicking the sync icon syncs your Kindle app with the Kindle app on other devices or your Kindle reader (assuming your own one).

The Kindle app table of contents isn’t as slick as the one in iBooks.

Navigation & Landscape Mode
Navigating while reading is much the same as iBooks. You can single tap the screen for a quick page turn or swipe slowly for a slower one. Or you can tap and hold and really do a slow page turn. The page turning animation is about as good as the one in iBooks. You can also turn it off if you prefer not to see it

Unlike iBooks, the navigational interface in the Kindle app goes away automatically. To bring it back you just need to tap anywhere on the screen.

The controls while reading are simple to use. A link to your Home page is in the upper left and a bookmark link is in the upper right. At the bottom of the page are more controls that let you navigate, add or remove a bookmark, go to the table of contents/cover/beginning/location/notes, change the font and sync. If you click the font control you’ll also find an additional control that lets you control the brightness of the screen.

You can easily change your font size and screen brightness in the Kindle for iPad app.

If you prefer to read in landscape mode, just reposition your iPad appropriately. The text will readjust and you can begin reading in landscape mode.

Buying Books on Kindle for iPad
As I mentioned earlier, there is a link to “Shop in the Kindle Store” in the upper right corner of the Kindle app interface on the Home screen. Clicking that link opens Safari and takes you to Amazon’s Kindle books store. From there you can buy books, download samples and do all the usual stuff you can do on Amazon’s shopping site. If you’ve used Amazon before, you’ll have no problems buying Kindle books through the Kindle bookstore.

Unfortunately, you can only buy books for Kindle via Safari. There is no bookstore built-in to the Kindle app.

Alas, this is not the most elegant way of handling book buying.

Now that we’ve taken a look at what each ebook app has to offer, how do they stack up against each other?

Store & Book Selection
As I write this, it’s clear that Amazon wins hands down in terms of selection. With more than 450,000 books, Amazon’s Kindle app is way out in front of Apple’s iBooks app (which has around 60,000 books). I expect that Apple will improve iBooks’ selection of books dramatically as time goes by. In the end, I think both apps will ultimately draw even in the number of books that they offer.

iBooks, however, blows Amazon’s Kindle off the map when it comes to buying books. The Kindle app does not have its own built-in store, so when you click the Shop in Kindle Store button you exit the Kindle app and Safari starts up and takes you to Amazon’s site. Given how nice web browsing is on the iPad, it’s no problem at all to buy books this way. But it pales in comparison to Apple’s amazingly slick, built-in store and it makes Amazon’s Kindle app look rather primitive in comparison.

And when you actually do pick a book to buy or sample, you have to choose which device to send the book to after deciding to buy or sample it. In iBooks, the book or sample downloads right away and you can click into it without having to exit Safari and start the Kindle app. All in all, Apple has Amazon beat right now when it comes to buying books.

Amazon has taken a page from Apple and added animation to page turning.

Apple has included gorgeous page turning animations in iBooks.

Right now, Apple wins the format war since it uses the epub standard (albeit with a DRM wrap-around). You can also read non-DRM epub-based books on iBooks by adding them to iTunes and then syncing them to your iPad. Amazon, on the other hand, uses its own proprietary AZW format and does not presently support epub formatted ebooks on its Kindle reader or Kindle apps. This is a foolish mistake on Amazon’s part and, sooner or later, they will have to back away from their proprietary format.

Adding notes to page is something that some readers like to do. Unfortunately, that feature is not currently available in iBooks. Nor is it available in the Kindle app for iPad, though you can apparently read notes that you’ve taken if you add them via the actual Kindle reader itself. I could not find any way in the Kindle app to actually add a note.

But there’s another thing to consider when deciding which app to use. Amazon has done a fantastic job of making sure that its Kindle app works on the iPhone and the iPad (among other devices). And one of the best things about this device ubiquity is Whispersync, which keeps your place across all of your devices.

This means that if you start reading a book on your iPad and then leave your house, you can resume right where you left off even if you are using your iPhone instead of your iPad. It works the same way if you are using the Kindle reader, your PC or your Mac too. Don’t underestimate how useful this is if you own multiple devices.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a version of iBooks for the iPhone…yet. I’m sure one is coming but it’s up in the air if it will sync across the iPad and the iPhone. If it doesn’t then it will remain at a disadvantage to Amazon’s software. Syncing is hugely convenient and, frankly, after having it for a while with my Kindle/iPhone/iPad, I consider it a must-have convenience feature.

So Apple had better proceed with an iPhone version of iBooks and the company may want to even consider putting iBooks on other devices as well. Amazon has already proven that they will go the extra mile to make sure that their customers can buy books on almost any device and Apple can’t afford not to do the same.

Polish & Animations
When it comes to sheer slickness, iBooks wins hands down. The bookshelf metaphor (did Apple steal it from “Classics” app? I really don’t know but it does look similar), the iBooks store, the elegant table of contents page and other nice touches make iBooks a pleasure to use. None of this is surprising, given Apple’s history of designing great user experiences. iBooks is simply another product in a long line of Apple design triumphs.

While Amazon’s app is usable and also nice in its own way, it doesn’t quite measure up to the sheer coolness that iBooks delivers in terms of presentation and animations. For example, when you read using the Kindle app and you switch to landscape mode, you won’t see two pages (unlike in iBooks). Instead you’ll just see the portrait view stretched into a wider width. Nothing wrong with that but it’s just not as “book-like” in the way that iBooks handles it. I give Amazon credit though for adding its own version of the page turning animation. That at least gives it just a tad bit of iBooks’ polish.

And the Winner Is…
A draw.

Yes, I’m calling this ebook app duel a draw…for now. Why?

Well the problem is that each of these apps has a tremendous amount to offer readers but in different ways. They are, in some ways, mirror images of each other.

Amazon has the most content & whispersync but it lacks the polish and built-in store of iBooks. Apple’s app has all the polish you could ask for and buying books is effortless, but it lacks the enormous amount of content available for Amazon’s Kindle app and iBooks is only available on the iPad right now.

After taking everything into consideration, I simply could not declare either app a direct winner over the other. They both have significant advantages and disadvantages that each potential customer should take into consideration before buying any books.

Both companies have challenges ahead of them as well as amazing opportunities to expand the market for ebooks wildly beyond what anyone expects from it right now. Will they rise to these challenges? We’ll find out. One thing is for sure, the competition will be fierce and it will be fun to watch.

The Real Winner: Consumers
In the end, the real winner in all of this is…the ebook consumer. We get to use both apps and we benefit as both companies inevitably try to one-up each other by adding better features and more books. Things are only going to get better and better from here in both apps.

We’re entering a golden age for ebooks, my friends. Make no mistake about it.

So I’ll be keeping both apps on my iPad. I’ll continue to enjoy my Kindle book collection on my iPad but I’ll also be reading books on iBooks. The first two books I bought for iBooks are the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I’m already having a ball reading the Hobbit on my iPad. It looks great and it complements my existing Kindle book collection very well. I simply switch back and forth between apps depending on the book I want to read.

The smartest thing to do right now is to enjoy the best of both worlds. It’s a great time to have your ebook cake and eat it too.

What’s your take on Apple’s iBooks versus Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Follow me on Twitter and visit my Facebook fan page.

Summary Table:

Product: iBooks
Web Site: iTunes Store
Price: Free
Pros: Slick and polished. Takes full advantage of what the iPad can do. Great store integration into the iBooks app.
Cons: Lacks the amount of content available for the Kindle app. Only available on iPad right now. Does not sync bookmarks across multiple devices. Uses epub format but wraps it in DRM.
Suitable For: iPad owners who only read on their iPads and those simply interested in an alternative to buying ebooks from Amazon.
Summary: Apple is off to a great start in the ebook market with iBooks. It provides a gorgeous, slick reading experience and takes full advantage of what the iPad can do.
Rating: 3.5/5

Summary Table:

Product: Amazon Kindle for iPad
Web Site: iTunes Store
Price: Free
Pros: More than 450,000 ebooks. Lets you sync bookmarks and notes across multiple devices including the iPhone, iPad and Kindle reader.
Cons: Poor book purchasing experience; the Kindle store has to be accessed via Safari. Lacks some of the polish and slickness of Apple’s iBooks. Uses Amazon’s proprietary ebook format.
Suitable For: Existing Amazon Kindle customers and those who need to sync bookmarks across multiple devices. Also suitable for those who prefer an alternative to Apple’s iBooks and don’t mind Amazon’s proprietary ebook format.
Summary: A good first effort by Amazon on the iPad. But there’s still a lot of work to be done before it matches up with iBooks in some respects. There’s no denying that Kindle for iPad has the most books available to read though…for now.
Rating: 3.5/5



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5 Responses to The Best eBook App for iPad: iBooks or Amazon Kindle?

  1. Jim on June 19, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    I’ll probably do a review of iBooks for iPhone though I don’t think I’ll write a comparative review with the Amazon’s iphone app. I have been buying books mostly from Amazon, mostly because they have a significantly larger selection of books (and because iBooks isn’t on the iPhone…yet…and I like to read at the gym).

    Apple is missing one critical feature though. Amazon lets you change the background to black and the text to off-white. I’ve found that this works wonderfully for night reading. As far as I know, Apple has not announced any plans to customize the background.

    I really, really do NOT like black text on white background for night reading. It’s icky. :sick:

  2. Nathan on June 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Nice comparison review; any chance that you’ll update it when iBooks is released for iOS4? Then it’ll have the same features as “Whispersync” and be able to take notes.
    That pretty much leaves amount of content as Amazon’s only edge, right? It’s a critical difference, though, as can be seen from iTunes movie and TV offerings.
    One thing you didn’t comment on in that regard was price differences for books on each app- what’s your experience?

  3. Mike Richie on April 18, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Hi Jim – Good review

    I do not have my iPad yet (I ordered the 3G version) so I can only comment on the iPhone version of the kindle app, but it is a universal app (works on both the iPhone and iPad), so I would guess it works the same. Although if not, maybe you can reply. The iPhone app certainly does do annotations, just select a word and it offers the option to highlight it or type a note.

    In fact the ability to do annotations and sync between platforms offers a compelling advantage to the kindle app I would think. It is much easier to update a software app on the app store than to build out the infrastructure for keeping what may be millions of users notes and bookmarks, as wells library settings, all online. I expect that Amazon will improve the buying experience on the iPad and the reading experience eye candy as well (not a very big programming job). That being said, Apple certainly could match the syncing capability and through integration of the iBook store and the app store to provide more seamless “App Books” (like the current The Elements or the various magazines) Apple could do things that Amazon can’t. (Think integration of iTunes U with Textbooks, for instance, or a book on music theory with a piano keyboard)

  4. Jim on April 11, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Hi Bakari,

    Thanks, glad you liked it. :smile:

    I suspect that the Kindle app will get a lot of improvements soon. They know that Apple is a fierce competitor and that they will keep improving iBooks relentlessly. So Amazon has no choice but to match Apple feature for feature and improve the Kindle app’s polish too.

    BTW, did you hear that Apple will have a version of iBooks out soon for the iPhone? I’m looking forward to seeing it. It looks like it will sync last pages too:

    “iBooks for the iPhone and iPod touch

    Apple is also making a version of iBooks that will work on iPhone and iPod touch. It’s essentially a miniature version of iBooks for iPad, replete with the bookshelf and access to the iBookstore. You’ll be able to access the same library of books from any of your iDevices, and bookmarks and last pages will wireless sync between them.”


  5. Bakari on April 11, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Great review, Jim. I have a similar one coming out on makeuseof.com in a few weeks. I really like both the Amazon and iBooks apps. Of course, Amazon beats Apple because of it’s wider selections. But I wish the Kindle for the iPad had the search feature that iBooks has. Also wish that both apps had a embedded notebook, instead of having notes mixed in with bookmarks. I annotate a lot when I read, and the long list of bookmarks and notes in both apps are not that useful in the end.

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