Now that Apple has entered the mobile eBook market with iBooks, it’s a good time to look at Amazon’s offerings. While Amazon originally released the Kindle strictly as a hardware platform for reading eBooks, that changed with the release of an iPhone app in March, 2009 – a full year and a month before Apple would release the iPad and the iBooks platform.
Today we’re reviewing both the iPad and iPhone version of Kindle, and drawing some in-depth comparisons to Apple’s latest offering in the form of iBooks.
Kindle for iPhone, being the first software Kindle platform, was meant to be used mostly by those who already had a physical Kindle. It was impossible to load your own content on the iPhone, so you were stuck with whatever you bought from Amazon.
Amazon’s WhisperSync kept you on the right page if you moved from the Kindle to Kindle for iPhone, but again, it only worked for Kindle books purchased through Amazon.
Since it’s been a year and a bit, and Amazon now has a competitor in the form of the iBooks store, they must have made some serious improvements… right?
Reading and Annotating
Reading in Kindle for iPhone hasn’t changed much since the first release of the app. A couple of features have been added since then, including several different text colour styles (the choices are black on white, white on black, and sepia) and a feature called Popular Highlights that lets you see what others are highlighting in the books you’re reading.
But mostly reading in Kindle for iPhone is about what you’d expect; relatively big text on a very small screen often makes it difficult to get lost in a book the way you would if you were holding dead trees in your hands. I’m told reading on the actual Kindle gives a similar experience of immersion, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try it out.
To bookmark a page, go to a bookmarked page, skim through a book, change the font colour or size, or sync your last read page to other devices on your iPhone requires a tap to the centre of the screen, which brings up an overlay that makes the bottom fifth of the screen unreadable.
This is rarely an issue, since you can simply tap again to get rid of the overlay, but it’s worth noting because it’s one of several parts of the reading experience that are vastly improved on the iPad.
As I mentioned, reading on the iPhone’s small screen sometimes feels cramped, and the need to flick to the next page after every paragraph or so doesn’t help matters. Reading on the iPad is an entirely different story.
The screen is about the size of a normal hardcover book page, and the result is that reading a book on it feels—please pardon the metaphor in advance—like drinking a milkshake, rather than like trying to suck a scoop of ice cream through a straw. In other words, it feels exactly as though you’re reading a book.
Let me digress here for a moment. In my opinion, the very best iPad apps are those that make the hardware fade away. For example, watching videos on the iPad is fantastic because the device itself fades away, and you’re left feeling that you’re holding a video in your hands.
The to-do application Things has the same effect; I feel as though I’m checking off items on my to-do list rather than using a device. Maps feels like an atlas, Calendar feels like a desk calendar, and Plants vs. Zombies… well, perhaps I’d better not stretch the concept too far.
Suffice to say that Kindle for iPad does a damn good job of making the hardware go away, leaving just the book you’re reading.
The one exception to this is that in landscape view, the view simply becomes extra-wide instead of becoming two pages, as it does in iBooks; with that said, almost all books are better read in portrait mode.
Just as on the iPhone, you can pick a font size and choose from several colour styles to suit your preferences and lighting situation; unlike on the iPhone, you can also set the screen brightness. Since Apple used a private framework to accomplish this feat in their iBooks app, Amazon was forced to resort to the hacky method of overlaying an increasingly dim image on the readable area of the screen; if you reduce the ‘brightness’ as far as it will go, you’ll notice that the popover that controls it and the status bar remain at the brightness you’d set for the device overall.
The other options—adding and going to bookmarks and syncing your page and other information—appear similarly to the way they do in the iPhone app, but are better presented. While they still appear in an overlay on the iPad, this overlay is entirely transparent (except for the icons) and is never overlaid on text, since Kindle for iPad leaves a substantial margin at the bottom and sides of each page—just like in a real book.
Bookmarking a page can also be done by tapping in the upper-righthand corner on either the iPhone or the iPad, but the iPad’s faux-ribbon bookmark is much more attractive than the iPhone’s pixel-art.
It’s commonly thought that Kindle books can only include black and white text and images, but that’s not quite right. Books purchased from the Kindle store only include black and white text and images, because the Kindle and Kindle DX can only support greyscale.
While it’s a challenge to get them in—something I’ll get to in a minute—books with colour illustrations and text can absolutely be read in Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for iPad, and they appear in full colour.
Code, on the other hand, is often rendered poorly; extended snippets of computer code (common in books like Craig Hockenberry’s recently-released iPhone App Development: The Missing Manual, and yes, that’s a plug) sometimes fail to indent properly, are often split across multiple pages, and become completely unreadable on the iPhone.
It’s worth noting (sorry for the unintentional pun) that Kindle offers basic annotation features; on both the iPhone and the iPad, you can highlight text and add notes. Apple’s iBooks currently lacks this feature, although it does offer the ability to copy and paste text from non-DRM-ed books, which Kindle does not.
Buying and Syncing
Getting books into Kindle for iPad and iPhone still works pretty much the same way as it did when Kindle for iPhone first launched: you buy them from the Kindle Store. This is a pain for several reasons: first, unlike the iBooks store, you have to open a web browser and search through the same store seen on a desktop computer in order to buy a book. There’s no native store, so you’re limited to poking vaguely at closely-spaced hyperlinks and hoping you hit the right one.
Before the iPhone App Store and iTunes Store, this wouldn’t have felt like a big deal; now it feels like a massive failure. At the very least, Amazon needs to get an iDevice-optimised version of their website in place. Even allowing you to purchase Kindle books in the Amazon app—a strange and apparently intentional oversight—would be a vast improvement.
Second, the books you download are laden with Amazon’s DRM. Not only are they user-specific, they’re device-specific; if you do manage to get books into or out of Kindle for iPad (I’m getting there, I promise!), you can’t read a book downloaded on your iPad on your iPhone or vice versa.
That means you have to redownload all your books—sometimes fairly hefty ones—every time you install Kindle on a new iDevice. Not a dealbreaker, but fairly frustrating given that Kindle and Kindle DX users can load their books onto new devices using just the PC or Mac Kindle application and a USB cord. Notably, they can also add non-Kindle-purchased content, which iPhone and iPad users can’t do.
Here’s the third annoying thing about syncing books to the iPhone and iPad: it’s possible, but it’s not supported. While a new version of Kindle for iPhone OS 4—or even for 3.2, the version on the iPad—could add the ability to sync books using the built-in file sharing feature, the only way to add your own books so far is to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad. Once jailbroken, you can use an SFTP client to log in, search through the users Applications folder until you find the Kindle folder (all the folders have strange alpha-numeric names, so it’s not immediately apparent which folder belongs to which app), and find the Documents/eBooks folder within the Kindle folder.
Once you’ve found that folder, it’s as simple as dragging and dropping your books from your computer into that folder and starting up Kindle on your iDevice. The added books should appear, although there’s no particular guarantee that the cover will show up; in fact, sometimes all the books added this way will take on the same arbitrary cover.
For most people, it’s probably not worth voiding the warranty on their iDevices just to read a few extra books in Kindle. If you’re already jailbroken (or thinking about jailbreaking), though, remember that beyond Amazon’s proprietary, DRM-ed AZW files Kindle for iPhone and iPad has solid support only for non-DRM-ed .mobi or .prc files; while the hardware Kindles have PDF support, Kindle for iPhone and iPad does not.
There’s software out there, like Calibre, that will convert an eBook from one format to another, but unless you have a very strong need to read a book in Kindle—for example, needing to read it on your iPhone before the next software update adds iBooks—you might as well convert it to ePub instead and use iTunes to import it into iBooks. It will be a lot easier.
If you run a jailbroken device, be sure to fully quit Kindle (rather than accidentally leaving it running in the background) before moving to another device; a full sync happens only on open or quit.
Kindle automatically syncs your last-read page and any annotations you may have made between all your registered devices (iPhone, iPad, Kindles, Kindle for Mac or PC).
Speaking of iBooks, how does it stack up against Kindle? In one area, specifically getting new books into the application, it runs Kindle into the ground. Buying books through the built-in iBookstore is easy and fun, and adding your own ePub-formatted books is as easy as dropping them on your iPad in iTunes.
It doesn’t support DRM-ed ebooks aside from Apple’s, but services like Feedbooks and O’Reilly Media sell DRM-free ePub books at reasonable prices. Both of these services also sell a Kindle version, but that’s not much use if you can’t get them into the Kindle app.
The iBook-store has an edge in providing colour content for download; while Kindle for iPhone OS can read colour images, if you only buy through the Amazon store you’d never know that. iBooks users can also choose from several different fonts, although they’re pretty much stuck with a black-on-white appearance.
iBooks blows Kindle away in one final respect: all titles in your iBooks library, including DRM-ed ones, are searchable. At present, Kindle has no search feature, something I feel is a glaring omission in an eBook reader.
Finally, a note on aesthetics: while Kindle for iPad is a vast visual improvement over Kindle for iPhone, the home screen is a blown-up, grown-up version of the application logo, and it just ain’t pretty. iBooks’ bookshelf metaphor wins this round.
On the other hand, Kindle has the edge in device support and syncing. You can read the same Kindle book on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, and the PC and Blackberry you’re forced to use for work, and each will automatically sync to your most recently read page. iBooks is currently limited to the iPad, although it will be coming to the iPhone as well with the release of iPhone OS 4.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether Amazon will fully embrace Kindle (App Store link) as a software platform or whether Apple will build iBooks (App Store link) software for Mac and PC and become the market leader.
Both apps have features the other lacks, and hopefully they’ll push each other to become ever better. I’d recommend downloading both, since the apps themselves are free, and trying them out with some free titles.