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