Can the iPad compete as an e-book reader?

I love my Kindle 2, but we're not exclusive or anything. So I certainly intend to buy an iPad--especially since it's a lot more than an e-book reader. While Steve Jobs's preview of the iBooks app did reveal a stunning reading interface, it also raised some questions for me about whether the iPad can truly compete as an e-reader.

The biggest open question regarding the iPad's potential as an e-reader relates to its bright, LED-backlit display. Amazon's Kindle uses E Ink, which--while much duller and darker than an LED screen--is decidedly easy on the eyes. I can read my Kindle for hours, with no eyestrain afterwards. But before I bought the Kindle, I tested myself (to see if I would actually stick with an e-reader) using the Kindle app for iPhone. And while I did read several full books on the iPhone, the eye impact was definitely noticeable; I needed frequent breaks from the brightness to rest my eyes.

Eventually, the Kindle app added a "nighttime" mode, where the app offered white text on a black background. That made reading, particularly at night, far less bothersome, and I could go for far longer stretches. But again, once I started reading on a genuine hardware Kindle, the eyestrain was no different from reading an actual book (remember those?).

For the iPad to compete, then, Apple needs to figure out a way to keep things as easy on the eyes as possible, while using that LED screen. The iBooks demo revealed that Apple's reader app shows the text as a virtual book--you can see the pages "behind" the one you're on in portrait mode, and landscape mode actually shows facing pages of the book realistically. Will iBooks offer a white-on-black mode? I don't know how weird it would look to show a photo-realistic book with black pages, but an approach like that seems necessary for extended reading times.

A second big question for me is how the iPad will handle bed-based reading. Using the iPhone while lying down can be a small exercise in madness; the screen often wants to flip to landscape mode, even though you're holding the iPhone vertically. (That's because the accelerometer can't work its magic quite as well when you're in that position.) The Kindle app eventually addressed this shortcoming with an orientation-locking mode. Frankly, I think the iPad will need such a feature system-wide (you won't want other apps flipping on you either), but it's an absolute must for iBooks.

A third feature of the Kindle that I didn't initially see the need for, but I've now grown quite fond of, is the integrated dictionary. You can move the cursor (painfully slowly, given the Kindle's lack of a touchscreen) to the word in question, and a definition appears along the bottom edge of the screen, without obscuring any of the book's text. If I could double-tap a word on the iPad to get an easily-dismissible definition popover, I'd be delighted. Apple hasn't demoed such a feature thus far, but let's keep hoping.

On the plus side, careful (read: overly-obsessive) analysis of Apple's iBooks screenshots reveals a few interface elements where iBooks clearly one-ups the Kindle. First off, assuming those pages in the background accurately reflect approximately where you in the book, that's a great recreation of the analog book experience that the Kindle lacks.

Second, it looks like iBooks is using genuine page numbers, as opposed to the Kindle's "locations." How (or if) those page numbers change when you enlarge the font, however, remains a mystery. Perhaps the greatest plus of all is the small text indicator on the bottom-right of the screen, indicating how many pages are left in the current chapter. There's no easy way to know that on the Kindle, and it's a considerable annoyance to click ahead to find out when you'll reach a good stopping point. It also looks like Apple's recreated the Kindle's "dot" approach to show how far along you are in the book overall, which may or may not be necessary depending on how the page imagery and page numbers work.

I'm okay having more than one e-book reader, and I'm even content to use the iPad as a Web surfing/e-mail/gaming machine without ever launching iBooks. But if the iPad does have ideal solutions for the issues I've raised, I'm pretty sure my wife's about to score a free Kindle.

This story, "Can the iPad compete as an e-book reader?" was originally published by Macworld.

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