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iPad as e-reader: A comprehensive review of e-book apps on the iPad

The iPad is the preeminent reader for books—no other device is as comprehensive in its coverage of available formats. It reads books from iBooks (Apple), Kindle (Amazon), kobo (Borders), B&N eReader (Barnes & Noble), ePub (open), as well as PDFs (Adobe), and tens of thousands of books that exist as stand-alone applications. And speaking of iTunes, the iPad also does MP3 and Audible brand audio books. And of course texts and HTMLs.

If a book is available electronically, chances are enormously high that you can read it on an iPad.

But what's it like actually reading a book on the iPad, and what are each of the reading apps like?

I downloaded every reader available on the App Store and examined each of the apps with the following criteria:

  • Reading — How was the actual experience of reading a book?

  • Bookmarking — Was it easy to assign and remove bookmarks?

  • Highlighting a word — What extras does the app offer?

  • Shopping — Was it easy to add a book to the library?

  • Selection — How many books by H.P. Lovecraft did the app's store offer?

  • Organization — Could I find a book in my library easily?

Each app does the job it's intended to do and none of them have flaws severe enough to render them unusable. Where they vary, sometimes significantly, is in the user interface and the process of buying books.

For this project I tried each of the readers using the same public domain book, Dracula, and to compare stores I searched each of the readers for books by H.P. Lovecraft, a niche offering.

iBooksIf you want the iBooks app you have to download it from the App Store. It doesn't come preloaded on the iPad which I find particularly odd. In this regard iBooks does not have an especially unfair advantage over any of the other readers.

Nevertheless, you'll be terribly glad you got it because I think it's the best reader. It also has a feature that no other reader has: the ability to add ePub books to its library from any source outside its own store.


The user interface of iBooks is the best of the lot offering the most comfortable reading experience overall. The reason for this is the split view, where there are two full pages displayed at once with a gutter between them, like a real book.

At the smallest font size. Any other size, the widows disappear.

It seems utterly natural to read in this fashion and I'm surprised none of the other apps offer this feature. BNE (see below) offers a gutter, but in name only. There's no shadowing and it looks like a two-column view of a word processor. Good idea, bad implementation—but iBooks has the right idea with the right implementation. And why other readers don't offer the feature, even as an option, is a mystery to me. Perhaps they were too focused on modeling their reader after the Kindle and failed to innovate in this fashion, I don't know.

One thing to note: The only way to get a single column of text is to hold the iPad in portrait mode. You cannot have a single column while in landscape mode. This can be a problem especially with technical books that have diagrams because you can't make illustrations larger than the portrait width of the iPad. With other readers that display one column in landscape mode, the illustration can be as large as a thousand pixels wide.

There are 10 font sizes (the largest being very large indeed) and five different fonts to choose from including one sans-serif font.

The screen intensity can be changed for night reading only in that you can turn the brightness down to extremely dim. You may not reverse the screen, meaning have white text on a black page, as with other readers. However, the dimming feature has the greatest range of all the readers, going so dim as to be unreadable unless the room is in total darkness (but perhaps advantageous in situations like under the covers when you're not supposed to be reading in the first place).

There's also a very nice cosmetic treatment. You can choose to tap the edge of the book to flip a page or you can drag from the edge of a page with a finger. As you drag your finger the page curls keeping the text intact on both sides of the sheet of paper—text and paper curling as appropriate. It's a very nice and compelling touch.


iBooks suffers from the most cumbersome method to assign a bookmark I've yet seen. To make one of your own, you first have to highlight a specific word in the text then select Bookmark from the pop-up that appears. After enjoying the experience of other readers I can't fathom iBooks' rationale behind this choice.

Highlighting a word...
...brings up four options: copy, dictionary, bookmark, and search. Search can be either within the book, on Google, or on Wikipedia which is an especially nice touch if the word you've chosen isn't in the dictionary, such as a a proper name. iBooks—and BNE which also has this feature (see below)—encourages me to explore outside the book and I really like that. It shows a strength of readers and what they can do.

To buy a book, tap "Store" on the upper right of the library view and the iBooks bookcase revolves like a secret door; on the other side is the App Store interface for buying books. Once there it operates as you'd expect, with featured books, search capability, and the like. Books download in under a minute even over 3G.

The advantage here is that you don't feel like you're leaving iBooks (far) behind to buy a book. The experience is smooth, fluid, and not jarring.

Unfortunately, as this is being written, the selection is mediocre when compared to other stores. As well, the information available for books is less than what the Kindle store offers.

iBooks had the smallest selection of H.P. Lovecraft texts with six offerings. Two were free, one was $6, and the rest were $12.99.

You have a choice: Books appear with their covers on a faux bookshelf or in a list organized by title, author, or genre. If you have a sample, there's a red corner ribbon over the cover illustrating that. New books get a bright blue ribbon.

I found iBooks to be the best of the readers even though it lacks some features found in others. It has the best presentation (particularly for novels) and being able to add my own ePub books is compelling. If it would offer a reversed screen, the ability to read PDFs, and the option to have a single column in landscape mode it would be perfect.

And, oh yes, it allows me to add books.

I'll explain...

I review GoodReader near the end of this guide and during the course of that review I wanted to compare how the various readers treated free ePub-formatted books. iBooks was the only reader that allowed me to view the ePub version of Dracula because it was the only reader that allowed me to add ePub books from outside a store. Kindle, kobo, and BNE would only allow me to add something to the reader if I'd bought it from their store. Now, Dracula is available from each of these stores already (it's why I chose it as my example for comparing each reader) but there are oodles of free ePub books out there and they're not all available from each store.

It's ironic that iBooks would be the most open and free even though it's tied directly to the draconian App Store and iTunes.

I downloaded the ePub Dracula from Google then merely dragged it onto iTunes, and synced my iPad. The book automatically appeared on my iBooks bookshelf—complete with a title and everything (I'm looking at you, kobo). Better, it kept all the bookmarks so I could easily jump to each chapter.

Here's how it looked:

Good show, iBooks.

Kindle for iPad
It wasn't the first reader in history (my first was my PalmPilot) but it was definitely the device that brought readers into wide public consciousness. I had the Kindle app on my iPhone and enjoyed it, buying a few books for it. Then I came into a physical Kindle and read with that a lot, including buying more books for it.

I enjoyed both but the Kindle on the iPad is definitely its own experience.


The Kindle works well but only displays one column, which I find limiting especially after using iBooks. It does offer controls for changing the size of the font—but not the font itself which makes its customization the weakest of all the readers.

However, unlike iBooks, you can choose between black text on white paper, white on black, or a nice third option: sepia, which has sepia text on a cream paper.

Displayed with the smallest font size.

Like iBooks you can either tap the margin for an instant flip or you can tap and drag your finger for a page curl effect—but the text does not appear in the underside of the page, it's just blank.


Literally couldn't be easier. Tap the bookmark icon to bookmark. To remove, go to the page that's bookmarked and tap the bookmark icon again.

Highlighting a word...
...produces only two options: note and highlight. This is less functionality than the physical Kindle has, which offers a dictionary.

If you tap "Shop In Kindle Store" you're pulled out of the Kindle app entirely and put into the Amazon website via Safari. Once there, what you do is buy a book as you normally would, except you buy the "Kindle version."

Also, by having to go to the Amazon website through Safari you have to put up with all the noise and crap that's blasted all over the webpage. I had to scroll past items that were not books in order to see books. That's not a good experience.

One good thing about it though is that once you finally get to a book the amount of information about it is voluminous, certainly more than what other stores offer. And since it's been around the longest the reviews section is the most robust.

Kindle has a large selection to choose from, larger than any of the other readers by far with over 140 selections matching the search term "H.P. Lovecraft" (of course almost all of them are the same stories over and over—but you can find what you're looking for at the right price). A quick perusal of almost any topic will yield a wider selection on the Kindle.

Book covers float in front of the Kindle logo wallpaper or there's a list you may sort by most recently read, title, or author.


A quick note about the covers: Inexplicably Amazon has let the Kindle use extremely low-res images for some of it's covers—including for-pay books—making the whole Kindle presentation look amateurish. None of the other readers let this happen.

Final note
The Kindle app has trouble respecting the orientation of the iPad and has to be reminded which way it's supposed to go. No other reader had this problem and this goes a fair amount toward making the Kindle cumbersome to use.

The only thing Kindle has going for it is selection. The app is inferior with the weakest customization, least features, buggy treatment of iPad orientation, and horrid book covers for purchased books. But the selection, I must emphasize, is vast.

Also price. Kindle is still at war and it's winning some battles, though not all. Depending on what you're getting, there could be a significant price difference between a Kindle version and anyone else's version. It would behoove you to search at least Kindle in addition to whichever other store you prefer before you buy.

The kobo app from Borders is painful. It's supremely elegant and is easily the best in one category but it suffers tragically from flaws—one of them a particularly glaring and frustrating one. But even if its worst flaw is one day corrected it would still not live up to other readers.

The word that first comes to mind when using kobo is elegance. The interface is clean, functional, smooth, well designed, and altogether, well, elegant. I like how when you open a book, it opens with a large bookmark covering the left margin that rises up automatically, as though you're pulling a physical bookmark of the page. That's a nice touch and makes me feel at home using the app.

Unfortunately it (too) only displays one column at a time but you do get to customize your page turning method among flip, curling, and a type unique to the kobo: fade.

The smallest font size is indeed quite small.

kobo offers four fonts—but inexplicably no sans-serif option—which you can adjust to a wide variety of sizes using a slider bar. You can choose between two types of screen: black text on white paper or the opposite.


Like the Kindle, it couldn't be easier—but it's done more elegantly than the Kindle. When you set a bookmark the corner of the page bends down, with the back of the sheet of paper turning a nice mustard color.

Highlighting a word...
kobo does not highlight words, nor does it provide notes, a dictionary, or any service other readers offer. Fail.

The kobo buying experience is excellent—the best. Tap "STORE" and you neither leave the app nor are you taken behind a bookcase, but fade into a delightful storefront that maintains the reader's art direction and presents the usual recommendations tastefully presented—I didn't feel like I was being given a hard sell (unlike the Kindle experience). Delightful!

H.P. Lovecraft returned 15 selections ranging from $6.29 to $12.99 so it falls in the middle compared to the other stores. I do find it odd that no free books were offered.

Here's where kobo fails hard. Like the Kindle the kobo displays books in your library by cover but for public domain books it doesn't display the title of the book, just the plain kobo logo with no words. So, in order to know what book it is you have to actually open it. That's ridiculous.

What's going on here?

What's worse, in the above screenshot the Cthulhu's Reign sample is not the most recently read book, it's Dracula. One would have presumed that since "Browse by Recently Read" was selected that the most recently read book would be in the upper left.

And can you tell me what the difference is between second and fourth cover? They both have bookmarks indicating that they've both been read at least a little. But what does the big black book on the book cover mean? It's a mystery.

Worse, some of the above books were included on the kobo—they, of all books should have a cover title, yes? Inexcusable.

Although elegant in reading and shopping its lack of features and shockingly poor treatment of its own library means I would only use this app if I absolutely had to. I would even buy a book at a higher price elsewhere if I could, just to avoid that terrible library.

If kobo is brought up to a solid version two it could be simply outstanding. I'm anxious to see what happens next.

B&N eReader
A case of extremes, the Barns & Noble eReader (BNE) offers unparalleled customization but annoying organization. BNE is usable and compelling—but every time it's used it's like a poke in the eye. BNE has a shorter distance to travel to become excellent and is already ahead of kobo and Kindle.

What sets the B&N eReader (BNE) apart from the others is its superlative control over how books are presented—it's the best. You can choose from five fonts, (only) five font sizes, but unique to BNE are justification on/off, three line spacings, and—wow—four page margins. You can also choose the colors for everything (with extraordinary control over the individual colors using sliders, you don't pick from a list) and, delightfully, you can save all of those options into personal themes so you can build a supremely customized experience for as many types of different kinds of genres as you like. BNE comes with five preset themes, ranging from stark to pleasant colors to night reading.

Actually that is the smallest font size. Looks almost big print.

The only downside to reading is the page turning mechanism, which is a slide like a slideshow. That screams "computer" like no other reader. It's almost off-putting.

See the two-column layout pictured above? It was fleeting. I played with the customization tools and while doing so the layout changed to single column and could not, for the life of me, figure out how to return to a two-column view. Was the initial two column view a mistake? It might have been, for it switched to one column when I played with—but did not change—the text color. No amount of fiddling could get me back, alas, so I can't positively confirm that a two-column view is available for all books in BNE.

A quick note

I used Dracula for my samples for all of the readers because it was a book that was freely available on all of the readers, thus would provide a good comparison.

But special mention has to go to Barnes & Noble who not only provided Dracula included with the app but spent extra effort to beautify with a custom cover, bookmarks galore throughout the text, dingbats (as seen above), and an all around top notch presentation.


Easy, like everyone except iBooks. Unfortunately though, it's the most inelegant method. You tap an icon (shown right) in the bottom right corner of the page which folds over. No animation, no color, no love. And, by the by, who dog ears their books on the lower right of the page? No one I'd like to meet, I'd wager.

Highlighting a word...
...gives you highlight, dictionary, note—and the option to look up the word on Google and Wikipedia, like iBooks.

Like the Kindle, BNE quits the app and launches Safari to take you to the B&N website. There were 16 HPL titles to choose from, ranging from $1.78 to $12.99. The website has more signal to noise than Kindle's but isn't as good as kobo's or iBooks'.

Like the others you can choose between arrangement of covers (on a plain background) or as a list. Unlike other readers you can also sort by kind, including books, magazines, and newspapers, which is a nice touch.

What sets BNE apart is its list view which has the list on the left and information about the book on the right, including a synopsis and other information. This is a very nice touch indeed and makes the other readers' list views look cavernously empty.

Compare BNE, iBooks, Kindle, and kobo in the pictures below:

But it has a terrible failure. If you don't have enough books to fill a whole screen in either list or non-list view then BNE populates all empty spaces with ads inviting you to download free samples. This is terribly distracting and, worst of all, there's no way to delete those covers/ads from your library. Believe me, I tried.

So now my library is choked with ads every time I launch BNE and this makes me not want to use BNE. It's like it saved the noise from its website and put it directly into the app instead.

Edit! A commenter below describes the process to remove samples from your library. My reaction accompanies the comment.

BNE's strength is its bewilderingly awesome customization. No other app comes close. The only things that keep it from being as good or better than iBooks is its store (the ability to add books to the library is as convoluted as the Kindle), the fact that there are so many ads embedded into your personal library, and its inability to add books without going through its store.

It's almost not worth mentioning but I feel I should: BNE's performance was the most sluggish of all the readers. It's not slow to the point that it causes problems, but when compared to everyone else BNE's sluggishness stands out. But just barely.

And I wish I could figure out the column situation. That's vexing me.


This is not an e-reader like the others but it deserves to be mentioned here because I'm using GoodReader as my primary method to view RPG books—and those are still books, right? GoodReader can display PDFs and text files—but not ePubs.

Unfortunately it's not, at all, designed to be as comprehensive or enjoyable an experience as the aforementioned readers. But you can get by if you have to.


Getting a screenshot to compare with the other readers brought GoodReader's flaws to the fore immediately. Namely: There's no store—at all. To get a copy of Dracula for comparison I Googled dracula and near the top of the list was Google's own digitized version of the book from books.google.com. I followed that link then one option was to download the book as either PDF or ePub.

Unfortunately GoodReader doesn't read the ePub format, so I chose PDF.

As you can see, it's a photographic scan of the physical book—complete with unfortunate warping of the text toward the gutter. There are no bookmarks or the like.


Tap the book icon then tap "Add a bookmark." Not as good as the other readers since it's twice the steps—but still better than iBooks.

Highlighting a word...

...could not be done on this book, but I've seen it done on PDFs (you can copy).


Not applicable.


Catch as catch can. I can read everything H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote on GoodReader—providing I can find it on my own. There's no central repository of places to go. This is good in that GoodReader is entirely open, but bad in that you're set adrift and left to figure everything out by yourself.

Worse, you have to manage a way to get the file onto your iPad. For Dracula I downloaded it to my Mac, then transferred it to my iDisk, and from within GoodReader mounted my iDisk and grabbed it from there.


A simple list of files will do, thank you! No fancy things like covers or descriptions for GoodReader.


The definition of utilitarian. I would vastly prefer to use any of the other readers.

Free Books - 23,469 Classics to Go

I mentioned above that there were separate apps on iTunes that are whole books. This app is different, offering, as you can see from the official title, 23,469 books in one app.

This is different from the other readers in that it's absolutely fixed in what it offers. There is no way to add to its library. Still, it's an app that reads books (and lots of them) so it deserves mention here.


The UI for reading a book is as no-frills as possible. You get no options—not even a choice between portrait or landscape mode which is, to say the least, an interesting choice.

What you see is all you get.

Another interesting choice is sepia text on cream paper. No, you cannot change it.

You can navigate by using a slider bar at the bottom but there's no dynamic information provided with the slider bar showing what page or location you're scrolling to. Scrolling is an adventure!



Highlighting a word...



Not applicable. However, I'll note that you don't get all 23,469 books at once. They're all listed and when you want to read one you tap it and it's downloaded to the app in seconds.


There are 13 HPL books available for free.


It's surprisingly good. I know, right? Crazy.

Custom covers and a description of the book (I'm looking at you, again, kobo). Not every book gets this deluxe treatment though, just some, but at least they all have a cover with the title on it.

You can search by author or title.


I was pleasantly surprised by this app since I expected so very little. The reading experience itself suffers from having no customization at all and the lack of a landscape mode is...weird—but the books are free, well organized, and take only a few seconds to get, and some of them even have unique covers and summaries.

I'm actually glad I have the app.


iBooks is the best because it doesn't have any glaring flaws—each of the other readers do—and for being a good overall performer. It lacks the customization of BNE, but has a better shopping experience. It doesn't offer single column view in landscape mode, but offers two column reliably and with a realistic and attractive gutter. Its selection is not—currently—as good as the Kindle but it allows you to add books without going through the store.

What would make the best possible reader? iBooks with BNE's customization features, kobo's store, Kindle's selection, anyone else's bookmarking, single-column landscape, and the ability to read PDFs. Were those things to happen it would define reading. Until then, it wins by being ahead of everyone else on points.

What's that? Free ebooks—real ones?

I recommend the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast