Kindle vs. iPad: How to pick the best ebook reader

Kindle vs. iPad: How to pick the best ebook reader

Amazon and Apple's digital readers are as different as night and day, so which one is right for you?

by Samuel Axon on February 22, 2011

The Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad are two of the most popular gadgets on the market right now, and both offer a digital reading experience as a central appeal. But other than that, they're very different devices; the Kindle is dedicated entirely to reading, while the iPad is a fully functional computer. Which one is best for your purposes? We'll compare them point by point to help you decide.

The iPad and the Kindle use completely different screen technologies - you could almost say they're like night and day.

The iPad uses an LCD display, which illuminates liquid crystals with a bright light for a bright, colorful, and animated appearance. It's the same technology used by most modern laptop screens and many HDTVs. The iPad's LCD display can play video and video games, display colorful photos, and show off impressive page-turning animations. It can change pages and display changes instantly, and you can read it in the dark.

The downsides: prolonged use causes eye strain due to the brightness, the screen is very difficult to read in direct sunlight due to reflectivity, and it consumes battery power very rapidly.

The Kindle has an E Ink display, which couldn't be more different. The display uses no power at all unless something is changing, allowing for astounding battery life. As the name implies, it's essentially digital ink that can be erased and replaced on call.

Remember the Etch-a-Sketch toy you played with as a child? The Kindle's display's behavior might remind you of that, but this new technology is far cooler. It almost appears like the printed word, so it's just as readable in direct sunlight as a paper book, and there's no added eyestrain.

The downsides are many, though. Since it's not backlit, you can't read it in the dark. It take some time to change what's on the screen - not enough that it would interrupt normal reading, but this limitation prevents rapid flipping through pages and prevents any use for rich media like animations. The Kindle's display is well-suited for hardcore readers, but the iPad is much more versatile and attractive to people who like colorful illustrations, animations, and videos.

Winner: Tie, depending on what you want

iPad iBooks

There's no competition if you're just comparing the official bookstores for both devices. We went into more detail with this in our in-depth e-reader bookstore comparison, but the gist of it is that Amazon's Kindle store has vastly more books than Apple's iBooks store - 670,000 copyrighted books to only "tens of thousands." The Kindle store also has a library of nearly 2 million books in the public domain; Apple hasn't released numbers about its public domain selection.

But when you're comparing the iPad and Kindle devices, that's a moot point because the entire Kindle library is available through Amazon's Kindle iPad app. Additionally, iPad users can access Google Books, Barnes & Noble's Nook store, and other online stores. If there's an ebook out there, you can almost certainly read it on the iPad - not so for the Kindle, which is restricted to Amazon's own store.

Apple wins this round, hands down.

Winner: iPad

Battery life
The iPad is rated for up to 10 hours while connected to wifi and up to 9 hours on 3G. Disconnecting from the internet and just reading a book will increase that a little bit, but not much, because the iPad's full-color LCD display uses a lot of power.

Because the Kindle's E Ink display only uses power when it switches pages, its real-world battery life is remarkably higher than that of the iPad. With wireless off, you read books on it daily and still wait nearly a month between charges. That's a solid victory if we've ever seen one.

Winner: Kindle

Web and multimedia
Both devices do more than just display pages from books and periodicals, but there's a big gap in their capabilities.

The Kindle has a web browser that works over both wifi and 3G, but the limitations of the slow-changing, black and white E Ink display are painfully obvious in this context. And since the Kindle is not touchscreen, navigating websites is a pain. It'll work in a pinch, but it's not a fully functional web browser by a long shot - many cell phone browsers are superior. The Kindle can also read books aloud to you in a digitized voice over headphones. This is a welcome feature that's not supported in many of the iPad's book reading apps. Finally, the Kindle can play MP3 files, so you can listen to some music and podcasts.

There are a few apps for the Kindle - games included - and more are coming, but it's too soon to tell whether they'll be exciting and useful or not.

The iPad, on the other hand, is an almost fully functional computer, capable of smooth web browsing, video, music, games, and countless other things, thanks to a vast library of apps. It can even use all the apps designed for the iPhone and iPod touch in addition to its own. There are few devices on the market more effective at delivering entertainment and information from almost every medium, and it frankly blows the Kindle out of the water. You'll just have to pay a lot more money and sacrifice battery life to get these features.

Winner: iPad, in a landslide

Wifi and 3G connectivity
Both the iPad and the Kindle come in models that connect to the internet via wifi and models that can connect on either wifi or the 3G cellular data networks used by mobile phones. The 3G versions of both devices allow you to access the internet anywhere you would get cell phone signal.

For the iPad, that means web browsing, downloads under 20 MB, chat, streaming video and audio, online gaming, and browsing for new books, among other things. As we've said, the Kindle is more restrictive; its 3G primarily allows you to browse the Kindle store and download more books, as well as sync your place in books for other devices. The Kindle does have an experimental browser that works over 3G too, though.

The difference in price between the iPad's wifi-only models and its 3G models is substantial - about $130, or almost the cost of a whole Kindle. Conversely, the 3G Kindle costs only $50 more than its wifi-only brother.

The iPad is more expensive to use on 3G networks after the initial purchase, too; AT&T charges $30 per month for 3G internet access on the iPad, albeit without a contract. The Kindle's 3G service is complimentary from Amazon. There are no monthly charges. To be fair, the iPad offers richer content over 3G than the Kindle does, but there's no justifying the higher up-front price.

Winner: Kindle

iPad Models

3G isn't the only area in which the iPad costs more than the Kindle. Across the board, the iPad is a vastly more expensive device. As we previously mentioned, both devices are split into two variants: wifi-only, and wifi+3G.

The wifi-only Kindle costs $139, while the 3G model goes for $189. The wifi-only iPad comes in 3 models: a 16GB model for $499, 32GB for $599, and 64GB for $699. For 3G: 16GB for $629, 32GB for $729, and 64GB for $829.

The iPad is inarguably a luxury item, unless you consider it a replacement for a laptop. (For some people, it can be.) The Kindle is priced for the masses. But we can't give this prize to the Kindle just for being cheaper, because the iPad offers so much that the Kindle does not, justifying its price. Other than the previously mentioned 3G markup on the iPad, we believe both devices are fairly priced for what they offer.

Winner: Tie, due to differences between the devices


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