Reading on the iPad

So last month I was Ms. Spammy Spamerson with iPad posts (“It’s coming!” “It’s here!” “Here’s what it’s like!”) and I promised I’d talk more about the iPad as an e-reader in an upcoming post. Reading isn’t the only reason I bought an iPad, though it was a contributing factor. While I mostly use it for accessing the web, carrying my photo library around with me and for watching video, I do like the idea of being able to store & access books on it as well. I was curious. In other words, I was interested enough about e-reading to want to be able to give it a try.

In a nutshell: reading itself on the iPad is great. I recommend it to anyone who has the same level of interest in it as an e-reader as I do. Where there are problems, though, has to do with the managing of content, but that’s not idiosyncratic to Apple’s iPad, it’s a problem for all e-readers — and the iPad just might handle it best. At the same time, you’re still getting an extremely high-quality machine from Apple. As with the latest Iphone 4, the company doesn’t mess around when it comes to the accessibility of their technology.

iBooks is certainly pretty.

So, to start off with, there’s iBooks. It’s lovely, visually. The nice bookshelf with your covers so prettily displayed. Internally as well, reading the text itself, I found aesthetically pleasing. Holding the iPad in landscape format, you get the two-page format of a book, so it heightens the experience. You can turn pages by tapping or by swiping — with swiping the page “turns” with animation, like a real paper page does. Apple’s very proud of that. It’s cute, but in actuality, I mostly tap. It’s faster.

Everyone asks me if it’s hard to read on the iPad because of the backlighting, and when I say no, they express disbelief and tell me that I’m wrong, everyone says it’s more difficult. I don’t know what to tell them. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve read almost all of Freakonomics without thinking about it either way. Some people say it’s a strain on their eyes. Some don’t. YMMV. Practically everything I do all day is a strain on my eyes, and my eyesight is so bad I’m practically blind as a bat. For what it’s worth, I didn’t find reading on the iPad to be uncomfortable at all.

No, the main problem with iBooks is content. The good news is that you can import your own EPUB books, if you happen to have them (perhaps you’ve got some short stories in Word doc form: you can transform these into an EPUB using a program like Calibre, for example). The other good news is that you can download tons of free classics from Project Gutenberg, right from the iBookstore. This is great. Sure, Google Books has lots of free books too, but they’re shoddily scanned and horribly OCRd (that’s Optical Character Recognition, or how a computer understands that the black marks in the picture it just read are letters). Full of typos, misreads and formatting glitches, reading a Google Book is more pain than pleasure, imho. I love Google in many of its forms, but when it comes to Google Books, I think their attitude of “get as much done as fast as possible” stinks. Project Gutenberg texts, on the other hand, are nicely proofed scans, with almost all the typos eliminated, neat and precise. I’m glad Apple made a point of offering PG books in the iBookstore.

But for paid content, it’s highly disappointing. Apple made deals with some publishers, but not all, and therefore there are big gaping holes in the iBookstore’s offerings. There’s still no agreement on the table with Random House, for example, and that’s a biggie. No Random House means no Knopf. No Crown. No Del-Rey. No Doubleday. No Vintage. No Ballantine. No Pantheon. No DC Comics. No Bantam. And a whole lot more. Go look at your bookshelf and see how many of your books are from those publishers. None of those would be in the iBookstore. Now, hopefully Apple and Random House will strike a deal soon & that’ll change

However, there’s another problem. As Laura Miller pointed out in her blog over on Salon.com, “I love reading on my iPad, but that doesn’t blind me to the abject inadequacy of the iBooks store. By contrast, Amazon, which has 15 years of online bookselling experience under its belt, has largely figured out the key to helping people find the books they want. It’s a little thing called metadata.” Don’t think you know what metadata is? Yes, you do. To the layperson, simply put, it’s tagging. Tagged posts, tagged objects, tagged images. Amazon uses metadata, including user-added tags, which make it easier for customers to find things they¬† might like. Look up your favorite book on Amazon, and scroll down a bit. You’ll see a section titled “Tags Customers Associate With This Product”. Click on a few. You might find something else you like. But the iBookstore doesn’t have tagging, or any metadata at all, really, other than author search, and genre distinctions of their own divising.

The first book I downloaded was my personal favorite, The Mists of Avalon -- not available in iBooks, but through Kindle for iPad.

Luckily, there’s Kindle for iPad. The app makes your iPad function just like a Kindle, as far as software goes: you can buy books right from Amazon on the iPad, or from your desktop and they’ll be synced to the iPad the next time you open the app. Easy. And there’s a veritable plethora of content to choose from. Amazon’s ahead of the game there.

A new arrival on the e-reader scene is Kobo, available June 17, a product partnered with Borders bookstores. Lower priced ($149) but lacking wireless capability for download, I can’t say if the reader itself will make a splash, but whether it does or not, there’s a Kobo for iPad app out already. As with the Kindle app, having this allows you to enjoy any Kobo books you might happen to purchase, and read them on your iPad.

Barnes and Noble has the Nook, and an iPhone app for their e-reader. They still haven’t come out with their app for the iPad, though they keep saying it’s in the works. My advice? Move it along a little faster there, B&N, and not just the app. I know you’ve been king of the bookselling heap for awhile now, but as Ferris Bueller once said, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. In your case, B&N, you might miss the train. I love B&N but if they want to stay relevant, they should be the stars of the e-book revolution — and they’re not. The Nook is pretty darn clunky, imho, and their e-book promotion and selling is lackluster at best. Sorry, a little digression from me and I doubt B&N is listening, but I wish they were, for their sakes.

For me, there’s one big advantage to the iPad over the Kindle or the Nook, even aside from versatility: the touchscreen. Laptop touch pads have been frustrating me for years; both devices feature their version of a touchpad, and I fear I would have been stymied again. Another factor is my growing dislike for one-purpose mobile devices. I don’t want to carry around a bunch of somethings that only do one thing.

One caveat: I haven’t been able to spend as much time with either the Kindle or the Nook as I’d like, to be able to give either an in-depth review, because I don’t own them. Unfortunately, my little blog budget does not extend to endless gadget purchases. If I had access to either, or the Sony Reader or the Kobo, I’d be happy to give any of them a fair shake.

Back to the iPad, I should also mention that for comic books, there’s the app from Marvel Comics. Comic books and graphic novels obviously lend themselves ably to the iPad’s full-color screen. Marvel’s free app is a comic reader; you pay for content in-app, something that’s growing common on the iStore. I was always a DC girl, so I know less about what I’m looking at with Marvel but — it looked pretty amazing. I’m just not sure, though, that you’ll ever pry paper comics out of their collectors’ hot hands.

The Toy Story Read-Along app includes music, coloring pages and games.

There are a couple other options for reading various files on the iPad. Good Reader is an app you can use to transfer files from your desktop to the iPad (by syncing, within iTunes, or wirelessly, but that can be messier). PDFs, TXTs, DOCs, and so forth. I uploaded a doc file and a PDF, and you can read them just fine in Good Reader. It’s not as smooth or pleasant a reading experience, but it works.

Lastly, there are also standalone book apps. Some app designers are selling their books this way, one app per book, and those books are either in the public domain, or original works licensed to them. Some of these are unremarkable, but a few showcase just what the iPad could do with creative content. Disney is right in the ballgame from the start with their Digital Books site, and now their Read-Along apps for iPad. Toy Story is a free download in the App Store; Toy Story 2 costs $8.99. They’re also offering The Princess and the Frog, with Beauty and the Beast to be added soon and, coming in June, a 3D app for Toy Story 3. Other childrens’ books on the iPad as standalone apps include The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss’s ABC, How to Train Your Dragon, Miss Spider’s Tea Party, and The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. A hugely popular app is the Alice for the iPad, with a Lite version available for free. Wonderful illustrations, graphics and interactivity:

Clearly, there are a ton of options for e-reading right now; all these companies competing with each other for our business with their hardware e-readers, their software e-books, their apps. Competition used benefits the consumer, but the one problem in this instance is that it makes file management very messy for us order-loving types. What I really want, after all, is all of my e-book files in one place, the way all of my music is in one place. In my house, my books are neatly arranged on my bookshelf, while yours might be strewn around the room. Either way, they’re not separated by which store I bought them from. I suspect Apple would prefer that I bought all my e-books from them, and therefore they would be all nicely organized in iBooks. But I suspect Amazon would like me to do the same in my Kindle app, and Borders would prefer I only use Kobo. That’s not going to happen, though, because the great thing about the iPad — and this is the crux of my review, and why my ultimate word on the issue is a hearty recommendation for it as an e-reader — is choice. I can shop at Apple, or Amazon, or Borders, or an independent company, and read all of it on my device. With a Kindle, or a Nook, or a Kobo, I’m restricted. Yes, all those devices can read DRM-free files you might have lying around. But the stores aren’t selling you DRM-free files. Why would they? They want you to use their product, their device, be their customer. Not someone else’s.

Lest I give the wrong impression, I’m not going to stop reading printed books. They’re still my preference. E-books are just another format to me, like audiobooks, and I wanted something to be able to access them with, like I have a CD player in my car or an iPhone jack so I can listen to podcasts while I drive. The iPad lets me read pretty much any e-book I might come across, and that’s why I like it. I use my iPad for so many other things, but it’s a big plus that it gives me the freedom to read what I want on it — and comfortably and pleasantly and enjoyably — as well.