iBooks, Kindle or Nook? Battle of the E-Reader Apps

The war of electronic reading devices is at its peak and has taken a strange turn not seen in many other rivalries. Even if you give in and buy an iOS device instead of an Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble Nook, you can still be a patron to these companies by using their free iPhone or iPad apps.

Below we’ll take a quick look at the three big names in book reading: iBooks, Kindle and Nook. I’ll give you my opinion of each based on a number of comparable factors like interface, features and shopping experience so you can decide which is best for you.

iBooks

We’ll start with the app that should be right at home iOS: Apple’s own iBooks. Just like the other competitors, this app is free to download and provides plenty of free material so you can thoroughly try it out without committing through book purchases.

Sign Up Process

The iBooks sign up process takes the gold because it simply uses the iTunes account that you needed to download the app in the first place. So you’re already signed up and ready to go, even if you’ve never used the app before.

Library

The iBooks library is shown as a beautifully rendered bookshelf. Sometimes Apple can get pretty lame with their psuedo-realistic interfaces but I think they knocked it out of the park with this one.

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iBooks book shelf

If you don’t like the book shelf view, you can also view your books in a simple but attractive searchable/sortable list.

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iBooks book list

Store

Apple wins this battle hands down. As you’ll see below, I hated the shopping experience provided by the other apps, which merely send you to Safari and don’t even have the courtesy of a built-in webkit browser.

The iBooks store on the other hand, is an in-app feature that looks, feels and operates just like the excellent App Store that you’re familiar with.

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iBooks store

Kindle and Nook really need to take notes in this area because this is probably the single biggest user experience disparity I came across in my tests.

Reading Experience

The iBooks interface is, not surprisingly, a book. The content is split up into two columns with a crease down the center and an illustrated book frame.

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iBooks reading interface

Along the bottom there’s a little square and a timeline that allows you to quickly jump to any page of the book. The top left corner holds buttons for the table of contents and library while the top right corner contains options for adjusting the brightness, font size, and typeface along with a search and bookmark feature.

All of the apps that we’ll look at today allow you to make a text selection and then perform various actions. iBooks provides a simple popup that gives you the option to cop the word, look it up in the dictionary, highlight a passage, make a note or create a search string.

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Text selection actions

After using some of the competing apps below, I came to dislike the faux-book interface that iBooks forces you into. It seems a little crowded by comparison and really eats up a lot of valuable screen real-estate. Tapping the center of the screen makes the controls go away, but the frame is still present.

I think it’s great that Apple is going all out to simulate the book experience but I really wish they provided users with an alternate, minimal viewing option without the fluff.

Kindle

The next competitor is Kindle, no small name in electronic reading. Did Amazon honor their good reputation with their iOS app or did they merely spit out an inferior product hoping you’ll trash that iPad and pick up an actual Kindle? Let’s find out.

Sign Up Process

Before you do anything with the Kindle app, you have to sign up for an account. I was fortunately able to log in with my existing Amazon account so the process was fairly pain free and should only take a minute.

Library

The Kindle library shows book covers in an icon view like iBooks, only on top of an illustration instead of a bookshelf. Also like iBooks, you can view your books in an alternate list form.

screenshot

Kindle Library

I don’t like this graphic nearly as much as I liked the Apple bookcase. In fact, it feels like a placeholder image that I should be able to replace with a wallpaper from my iPad’s library. Unfortunately, this feature is not present. If Amazon is clever enough to add it in the future, it would instantly remove any qualms people have with the this part of the interface as they could create and share their own bookshelves and other graphics.

The Kindle does have a nice system that lets you “Archive” books that you’re finished with. This removes them from your grid but stores them in a different area in case you want to go back and read them later.

Store

As I mentioned above, the store is a huge let down. Tapping the store button in the upper right takes you to Amazon.com in Safari where you can purchase and download books, which in my experience frequently error upon sending them to the Kindle app, forcing you to find the “Manage my Kindle” page to have it re-sent.

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The not-so-great Kindle store

Since purchasing books is the primary behavior they want users to engage in, Amazon should take the time to integrate this experience into the app and make it a stellar one.

Reading Experience

Despite the horrible shopping experience, the Kindle app has an excellent reading experience. While you’re reading, there’s nothing to distract you but a bookmark feature and a home button. Everything else is hidden until you tap the center of the screen to pull it up and there’s no annoying book theme like we saw on iBooks.

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The excellent Kindle reading interface

The hidden controls mentioned above include a basic search feature, a table of contents/extras panel (notes, marks, etc), and a text customization feature that allows you to choose from six different font sizes, three different themes, two different layouts (single or double column) and also includes a slider for adjusting the screen brightness.

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The text options

Selecting a word in the Kindle app automatically brings up the definition at the bottom (a great feature) with Google and Wikipedia links and the options to make a note or highlight appear over the selection.

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The text selection options

As much as I hate going through the process to purchase them, I actually really like reading books on the Kindle. It’s a great app that provides a nearly perfect reading experience. My one complaint is that it takes three taps to adjust the screen brightness. E-reader underdog Stanza has a much better process for this and allows you to just slide your finger vertically anywhere on the screen.

Nook

The final app in our competition is Nook from Barnes and Noble. The Nook devices are closer to the iPad’s rich full color interactivity, let’s see how the app fares.

Sign Up

The sign up process for Nook is almost exactly like that of the Kindle, except that many users will likely not have an existing account as they do with Amazon so it tends to take a bit longer.

Library

The Nook library has the largest book icons of the three apps and opts for a solid color rather than a distracting background image. You can rate each book right from this screen and there are some handy book suggestions with the option to download.

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The Nook library

The Nook list view blows away that of the other two apps by including lots of information and options all displayed right up front without digging through submenus.

screenshot

The Nook library list view

Store

As with the Kindle store, tapping the “shop” button takes you out of the app completely and into Safari. I’ve already ranted about how poor the experience is with this technique so I won’t say much beyond that unless Apple is blocking these developers to from doing so, including an integrated store is an absolute must.

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The Barnes and Noble Nook Store

Reading Experience

As with the Kindle app, the Nook reading interface is fairly minimal, this time giving you the ability to hide all on-screen controls. When you tap the center to bring them up, the interface still stays very sleek and efficient.

screenshot

The Nook reading interface

The default text size feels smaller than the other apps and when you enlarge it, you unfortunately lose the two-column interface. I think they should give the users the option to decide whether or not to view one or two columns instead of forcing them into one or the other.

The other text customization options allow you to choose the line spacing, justification, font, and color scheme. You can even choose from a bunch of pre-built color schemes. Other options include screen brightness and margin.

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Appearance Options

When you select a word in Nook, you get the option to highlight it, add a note, search the dictionary or look it up on Google/Wikipedia.

I really liked the minimal reading experience and thorough options provided by Nook. Since it was such a similar experience to Kindle, it’ll definitely be a close call!

Verdict

Now comes the part you’re really interested in, which should you use? Before I tell you which to download, let’s go over the variables and present the winners.

To make this easy, I’ll declare iBooks the winner of almost every category. The sign up process is non-existant because we all have App Store accounts, the library is gorgeous and the shopping experienced is unmatched.

However, this competition isn’t so easy to call. First of all, despite the visual advantage of iBooks, Nook comes out the clear winner in library functionality. Further, in my opinion, both Kindle and Nook provide a better reading experience than iBooks simply because they don’t force you to look at that silly fake book all day.

So which one do I recommend? Predictably, I’m going to tell you to try iBooks first. This isn’t because I’m an Apple fanatic but because my reason for not liking it (the book interface) is extremely subjective. You might absolutely love the book frame. If you do, why not go with the reader that wins everywhere else?

If you don’t like the book frame, I recommend that you check out Nook. this was a hard choice because I really hate that Nook goes messing with my columns when I adjust the text size. However, Nook has a better library, a super minimal reading interface and more customization options that Kindle.

Further, Nook has a killer feature that I didn’t even mention above: book lending. This awesome idea allows you to actually loan digital books to friends (limited to 14 days) just like you would with a real book. Since I’m a cheap skate who hates paying full-price for books when they’re free at the library, the ability to just grab a book from a friend really appeals to me. Plus I’m a sucker for innovation and that’s simply a stellar feature.

One lame part about Nook is that the iPhone and iPad apps are separate. With the others you get a single universal app and I’m not sure why Barnes and Noble didn’t do the same.

Kindle is a really close competitor though so if you like simplicity in your feature set, a two-column reading format and an effortless dictionary feature, skip Nook entirely and download Kindle instead.

What Do You Think?

To sum up, the three popular reading apps are pretty close in features and overall experience. So close that choosing between them is inevitably a matter of splitting hairs. My conclusions are admittedly pretty subjective but I kept my logic clear so you can decide which is best for you depending on what you find important.

Leave a comment below and let us know which book-reading app you can’t live without. I intentionally kept this as a battle between the big three but there are plenty of other great apps out there like Stanza that can easily take on these guys in many respects. Let us know what you think!


  • http://www.zeode.com/ Andrew Milham

    Apple’s App Store rules do prevent the Kindle and Nook apps from being able to include shopping experiences like that in iBooks: In order to sell digital content from within your app, you must use Apple’s In-App Purchase system, which means paying 30% to Apple. That would be untenable for Amazon and B&N where they’re already struggling to get the prices lower on ebooks.

    Another thing is that Amazon has announced that you will be able to lend Kindle books also, with a two week limit like Barnes & Noble’s.

  • Trent

    Actually the deciding factor for me was the number of books available. Kindle has a much larger choice than iBooks, so I went for Kindle. iBooks also ties you into an iPad where Kindle has it’s own e-reader you can share the book with for outdoor reading.

  • Devin

    I’ve used both ibooks and kindle extensively, however I am now using kobo exclusively. The store experience beats kindle and the selection beats ibook. The actual reading interface is also my favourite of the three. For me it is the clear winner at this time.

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  • AmerycanRebel

    Kindle app. I got the Kindle, but the app rocks on the iPad. Amazon has a much better selection of books than iBooks or B&N. The Kindle store doesn’t bother me much. Lot better than B&N!

  • http://fairheadcreative.com Adam Fairhead

    I’ve always used iBooks so far, mainly because I have so many books in PDF format. Mobile Safari brings up an iBooks prompt whenever a PDF displays, so it has become, by default, my eBook reader.

    Kindle does look nice though, and I’m definitely not against giving it a whirl too.

    Anyone know what the market says right now, between the two? “Who is winning”?

  • http://sambarillaro.com/yesterdayshero yesterdayshero

    I noticed you didn’t mention that you can use these readers in the vertical position, hence removing a lot of the frame used in iBooks for their fake book look. Like you said though, it is a subjective thing.

    For me it’s the number of titles available. Amazon has had a head start here and hence has a much greater option.

    It’s a shame though, as I feel the reading experience is much nicer on the iBooks platform. The Kindle app feels a little ‘unfinished’ to me.

    The sync between devices also wasn’t mentioned. iBooks by far beats the Kindle app when syncing between your iPad and iPhone. The Kindle app can be very glitchy at times when doing this.

    • Jason

      You mention syncing can be glitchy, however with the Kindle app, I can sync with my Kindle, iPad, iPhone, and Mac. Can’t do that with iBooks.

      Also, as anybody that uses a lot of apps will tell you, just because the app store / iBook store is pretty, doesn’t mean that it’s truly functional for finding new / not yet popular items. I for one would much rather have the full functionality of either Amazon or B&N’s websites.

      • David

        You can too sync devices through iBooks. I use it all the time to read the same book on my iPhone and iPad.

  • David

    I personally like iBooks best of all for reading. But you don’t mention Kobo Books, who have a great reader and a wonderful bookstore. Here in Australia it has by far the best selection of ebooks, at great prices.

  • Stephen watson

    Well, apart from the column down the centre on iBook being a little wider than that on the Kindle there seems to be about the same amount of border on both just that it looks like a book on iBooks and is plain White on Kindle. And there is always portrait …

  • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

    I personally use the Kindle app the most. I’ve never owned a Kindle device, but I do have a large number of Kindle books on my PC with Kindle for PC. With content that’s readable on my desktop, netbook, and iPod Touch, Kindle is the clear winner in my opinion. I’ve always assumed Apple will add an iBooks reader to iTunes, but nothing so far…

  • http://www.literaryspring.com Rebecca

    I prefer the Kindle app because of the larger selection in the bookstore. I also prefer the white text on black background combination which is easier to read and is easier on the battery.

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  • http://www.qzap.org/v6/ Milo

    I use all three, and like different features of each. I think iBooks might be the best experience in general, and I like the ability to add PDFs and ePub files with ease. That said, Amazon seems to have the largest selection of books that I want to read, and there is a decent price differential, so I’m not locked into $9.99 books for the most part.

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  • Deb

    BlueFire App (Free) will open epub format books which have Adobe Adept DRM. Once the ebook has been authenticated in the desktop reader software, you can transfer to BlueFire through iTunes. The interface is very similar to the widely used Stanza.

    This opens up the reader to many ebook retailers, and keeps them all in one app. I have books from the Sony ebookstore, Kobo, Books on Board, Diesel Books, Borders all in BlueFire. I’m thrilled. I do not buy from B&N as they use a different epub DRM flavor, as does Apple’s iBooks. If I am to accept DRM, I prefer nonproprietary.

    BlueFire also offers direct purchasing within app from Feedbooks and Books on Board. They indicate they are working with other ebook retailers for this feature.

  • http://www.heelshield.com heelshields

    QUESTION: When you purchase a book is it yours forever and how many times can you lend the same book to the same person?

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  • Maryellen

    Help – I downloaded the nook app for my iPad — bought an ebook on B&N ebook site, when I hit download – a window popped up saying it would be downloaded to iBook. No way to say no to this. when I opened it on ibook – it’s blank pages with an error message on each page … blah blah blah document is empty error — and I can’t get to it on the nook app. :(

    • mimi

      I’m having the document is empty error problem on a book i bought with ibooks how do i fix this? :(

  • dVoka

    I haven’t used the Nook so can’t speak to that. Between iBooks and Kindle, I tend to read Fiction on iPhone Kindle at night before going to sleep (in bed). For normal reading during the day, my opinion is that iBooks has a better reading format than Kindle on iOS devices. I suppose that’s why some books are more expensive on iBooks than on Kindle.

  • Bara Minata

    As someone mentioned earlier, Apple’s 30% rule prevents Amazon and others from selling “in-app.” But the interface plays secondary role to selection, and here Amazon wins hands down.

  • Pat Lindgren

    All of what you said is great if you have two or three electronic books, but I have hundreds. iBooks has the ability to create Collections to file the books by author, subject, genre, or anything else. Neither Nook nor Kindle have that ability. All of their books are in one long list, making it hard to find a particular book or to browse for something to read. That is why when I buy a new book, I buy it for iBooks whenever possible.

  • LindyK

    You left out a MAJOR CONSIDERATION that needs to be taken into account when considering iPad vs. Kindle or Nook. I have an iPad, love it and read all my books via iBooks. However for months now I friggen can’t get to sleep until around 4 a.m. It is ruining my life. Just found out the iPad’s backlight is robbing the body of serotonin if used at night and has been blamed for major sleep disorders. Kindle and other ereaders do not have the backlight and thus have no sleep issues. I am now buying a Kindle just for my night reading. Google this – you will find t’s becoming a major epidemic.

  • Michelle

    I’ve been using both iBooks and Kindle on my new iPod touch and prefer iBooks for the reading experience. However, I’ve read some reviews that say that iBooks drains your battery much more than the kindle app, even when you’re offline. Anyone had this experience? I want to purchase some books for a long trip and don’t know which ones to go for!

  • Jesse

    Does anyone know if either ibooks or nook allows you to copy and print pages from your books? I am willing to obtain permission to make copies (due to my work and applications as a teacher/therapist, many of the books I buy have this option already in gear).

    Kindle does not allow this option, unless anyone knows how to do this?

    Thank you for your help,

    Jesse

  • Spencer Newman

    The sad thing about iBooks is that Apple has been so stingy compared to Kindle and Nook. You can get Kindle and Nook apps for the iPad and iPhone so you can read that content on Apple devices. Sadly, iBooks only works with the iPad and iPhone. There isn’t even a version for the iMac. This kind of short sightedness is silly and demonstrably childish in the face of the current economics of eReaders.

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