Readers’ Dilemma: The Kindle or the iPad

by Reads (7,599)

Before January 27, much talk in the tech world centered on eReaders, with offerings by Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble and others emerging from niche-gadget status to an exclusive product category. After January 27, it’s clear that Apple is hoping the iPad does to eReaders that the iPod did for digital music players almost ten years ago, based on comments by Steve Jobs at the iPad unveiling. “Now Amazon’s done a great job of pioneering this [eReading] functionality with their Kindle,” Jobs claimed. “And we’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a bit further.”

Apple iPadSo would bookworms in the market for an eReader be wise to hold out for Jobs describes as a “magical and revolutionary device”? Do the potential offerings above Amazon’s shoulders actually surpass what is already available?

As of February 2010, the Kindle and Barnes & Noble nook both retail for $259, Sony’s Reader Daily Edition retails for $400, and the iPad will cost anywhere between $499 and $829, depending on the storage size and connectivity.

Also, an AT&T 3G data connection for your iPad (available in the $629-, $729-, $829-priced models) will run $15 for 250 MB of data service (approximately 150 to 200 e-books) and $30 a month for unlimited, all without an annual contract. The Kindle, nook, and Daily Edition all offer free 3G connectivity through various providers, and Wi-Fi in the case of the nook.

But what will the books cost? The current pricing of e-books is extremely volatile as Apple, Amazon, and book publishers all seem engaged in nothing less than a price war that may actually result in higher prices for the consumer.

In late January before the iPad announcement, Amazon released a new e-book pricing structure, limiting publishers to charge between $2.99 and $9.99 for titles, with each being at least 20% less than the cost of Amazon’s lowest-listed price of a physical copy (previously, publishers were allowed to charge upward of $200 for an e-book, but most kept it around $10).

Apple’s iBook store (announced along with the iPad) allows publishers a bit more flexibility, with titles priced between $13 and $15, according to the New York Times.

Apple’s iBook pricing emboldened the major publishers; the first being Macmillan, who was upset at Amazon’s rigid pricing. In late January, the publisher insisted Amazon loosen pricing restrictions, resulting in Amazon briefly pulling down all Macmillan’s books from its Kindle store, before relenting and allowing Macmillan to price titles above the $9.99 limit. Hachette Book Group soon followed Macmillian’s lead and struck a similar deal with Amazon. Rupert Murdoch, a vocal critic of Amazon’s restrictive pricing, has been rumbling he’d like the same for his Harper Collins offerings.

Both Banes & Noble and Sony price their e-books competitively, $9.99 for most titles, though prices can creep up to $15.

Amazon Kindle 2Two Display Technologies
One of the most salient differences between the iPad and standard eReaders is the display technology. The nook, Kindle, Daily Edition, and other dedicated eReaders use e-ink displays that differ vastly from the iPad’s LED-backlit LCD screen. E-ink actually looks like ink on a page, which eliminates the eyestrain commonly associated with prolonged LCD viewing. Brighthand Kindle 2 reviewer J.R. Nelson stated that for serious readers, e-ink the preferable technology. “All told, it [e-ink] makes for a reading experience that simply can’t be matched by those offered on readers that use LCDs. People often talk about how great it is to read on the iPhone or iPod Touch, and I’ve used both my iPod touch and various cell phones and PDAs to read an awful lot of text. There is, simply put, no comparison. At least, no comparison in which the LCDs come out on top.”

With e-ink come limitations. Current e-ink displays cannot be backlit like LCD screens (which actually require backlighting to be visible) making it tough to read in low-light situations without external illumination (just like a real book), and compared to LCD screens, e-ink is sluggish and slow to refresh.

The other advantage LCD has over e-ink is that LCD renders color. Currently, the nook and Kindle are only available with grayscale (black and white) displays. The iPad with its LCD screen renders full-on color, a fact that isn’t lost on magazine publishers like Conde Nast (Wired, GQ) and Time Inc. (Sports Illustrated, Time), which reports indicate are prepping tablet editions of their popular titles along with dedicated iPad applications.

The bottom line is that reading e-ink is very similar to reading a newspaper or novel, great for words, but limited with pictures, while reading off the iPad’s display will be akin to reading text off an HDTV. Sure, the colors and pictures are great, but the screen may strain your eyes.

Battery Life
One of the advantages of e-ink is that once it splashes on the page, it doesn’t consume any power to display. That is why most eReaders measure their battery life in terms of page turns, as it takes juice to refresh a page. Even then, devices like the Kindle 2 and nook can last for days or even weeks between charges with moderate use, provided the Wi-Fi or 3G is switched off.

Apple claims that its iPad can run for 10 hours between charges, though manufacturers typically measure battery life in optimum conditions resulting in an inflated number.

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