The Best Way to Read an eBook

Fun article from The New York Times (“Deciding on a Book, and How to Read It”); fun because it’s exactly the sort of thing I like to do — reading a book across a variety of gadgets to determine which is the best e-reading device/tablet for reading an ebook. Granted, part of the reading experience is subjective no matter what format it’s read on (different things matter differently to different people, etc.), but that’s not going to stop articles like this from being written, so let’s play along, shall we?

“So I set out to try them all, reading a chapter on each: the Amazon Kindle, the first- and second-generation Apple iPads, the Barnes & Noble Nook, an iPhone, a Windows Phone, a Google Android phone, a Google Android tablet and a laptop computer. To be fair, I also read a chapter in that old-fashioned form — a crumply old print paperback.”

On the Kindle: “Shopping on Amazon for the Kindle is simple; you go to Amazon’s Web site and purchase the book, which is then sent to any devices with Kindle software installed.” The only thing I’d add here is that I wish it were a little easier to buy books directly from the app … of course, that’s not really Amazon’s fault. Is it? (CNET: “Apple Forces Amazon to alter Kindle app”). So, the Kindle breakdown looks something like this:

  • Kindle Pros: E Ink display; light and portable; long battery life; Kindle app works on lots of devices
  • Kindle Cons: lackluster browser; clunky physical keyboard

Then there’s reading that same book on a Google Nexus S, and a Windows 7 Phone (people buy Windows phones?). This is where that subjective element comes in — I personally don’t like reading books on a phone screen very much. And yet I have no problem reading news articles on a phone screen. And yet again, some people certainly don’t have any problem reading their ebooks on phones (maybe swiping the screen every half paragraph also makes it seem like you’re reading a lot).

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of someone reporting on the book reading experience on an Android tablet, so I want to share this:

“ For the next chapter, I downloaded the book from the Google eBookstore and read it on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a Google Android tablet. The text was clean and easy on the eyes, but over all the experience wasn’t quite as satisfactory as I’d had with the Kindle, the other Android phones or the iPhone. The software hid menu screens in places that I had difficulty finding, and its design felt a little too rigid and even clunky.”

For iPads, it’s hard to dispute the reading experience itself. The iPad is cool and sexy, and iBooks really is a well-made ebook application (check out this helpful comparison of iBooks vs. Kindle, if you’re interested) —

“Next were the iPads. The iPad 1 ($400) is too heavy and feels more like a dumbbell than an e-reader. But the iPad 2 ($500-$830) is lighter and feels snug in your hands.

Both iPads offer an immersive reading experience. I found myself jumping back and forth between my book and the Web, looking up old facts and pictures of New York City. I also found myself being sucked into the wormhole of the Internet and a few games of Angry Birds rather than reading my book.

The iPad scorecard could look like this:

  • iPad Pros: immersive reading experience, thanks to iBooks and other apps; you can do lots more stuff than just ebook reading
  • iPad Cons: you can do lots more stuff than just ebook reading … for the easily distractible types; your most expensive e-reading option; people will possibly envy and resent you

On the Nook Color (we also looked at the new Nook with the touchscreen a bit here), it struck me as somewhat funny that one of the selling points is that you can browse ebooks on your Nook Color while in the physical Barnes & Noble retail store. Ok, I can see why it’s appealing — but given the option of the ebook on my screen, or the book on the shelf right next to me, I’d still opt for the book on the shelf.

And, the cheapest option of all is still to go analog: “But if money is tight, go for print. My used paperback cost only $4.”

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[Update: ZDNet (“Kindle over iBooks? It comes down to the desktop”) correctly points out that another point in favor of Kindle over iBooks is the Kindle for PC application, while iBooks lacks a Mac OSX version that you can use on your desktop. Which, sucks.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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