The iBook Store almost makes the iPad worth the price alone.
Updated: December 10, 2010 4:08PM
Don Knotts wasn't really a bumbling small-town deputy. But he was so damned good in that role that he got completely typecast in it.
And that's the same danger facing the iPad. It's a tablet computer that can fulfill any function, provided that a developer write the app and Apple actually approves it for sale. But it's just such a bloody good book reader that some folks will never wander far from its eBook functions. And why not- From one perspective, it's hands-down the best book reader you can buy.
(This would be the perspective of someone with deep pockets. I mean that figuratively and literally. At $499, it's the most expensive ebook reader currently on sale by a major retailer. And it's a 7.5"x9.5" slab of aluminum and glass. Even my 511 Tactical Pants -- with back pockets large enough for most netbooks -- say no way.)
Apple has chosen not to add a new wing to the increasingly inaccurately-named iTunes Store. Instead, they've released a new app called "iBooks" which incorporates the Trinity of the ebook experience: a store, a library for the content on your iPad, and a reader. It's a free download from the iPad App Store.
At the center of iBooks is a smart-looking rack of library shelves. It's also a familiar-looking one, if you're a fan of the "Classics" book app for the iPhone.
Tap a full-color cover and the book smartly flies off the shelf and opens on the last page you've read (or the first page, if it's a new download). Like an English Lit professor's dream or a student's nightmare, the bookcase scrolls infinitely, giving you plenty of shelf space. You can also switch to a more compact list view.
An "Edit" button allows you to remove titles from your Library to free up storage on your iPad. Go ahead and burn books with reckless abandon; the iBookstore keeps track of all of your purchases. If you attempt to "buy" a book you've already purchased and deleted, the Store will allow you to download it again free of charge.
Tapping the "Store" button at the top of the bookcase causes it to spin around in the fine tradition of classic Universal horror movies, and reveals the digital bookstore.
The storefront has the same basic user interface as the iTunes Store. It comes with the same problems: you can easily find exactly what you want, but idle browsing is more of a challenge. Well, Amazon's Kindle Store hasn't cracked that problem, either.
Tapping a book's cover art reveals its full catalogue page, which includes a synopsis and a collection of customer reviews. As in the Kindle Store, you can download a free sample of the book. These "free samples" are often quite generous. One title's sample download went on for more than 130 pages.
The Store is separated into 14 categories, including "Cookbooks, Food & Wine" and "Comics & Graphic Novels." The latter is particularly interesting; it indicates that iBooks can exploit the full media capabilities of the iPad. Alas, as I write this (four days before the iPad's official launch) neither category has been populated with content.
Apple tells me that on opening day, the iBookstore will contain more than 60,000 titles. But keep in mind that this number includes thousands of free public domain texts incorporated from the Project Gutenberg collection.
Pricing appears to be competitive with the Kindle Store. Many titles (including current best-sellers) are priced at $9.99. But it's clearly not a standing price policy. A handy button at the bottom of the Store section takes you to the current New York Times bestsellers; most of them are $12.99.
Purchases are made through your iTunes Store account. You don't need to type in a credit-card number just provide your Store password and it's billed automatically. Downloads begin right away and land immediately on the Bookshelf.
iBooks has a Bookstore that covers all of the necessaries (fair prices, free samples, and good organization) and a Library which is both pretty -- we like pretty things -- and is no more complicated than it needs to be. Neither of those sections of iBooks matters one whit if the Reader is in any way subpar.
Apple got it right. I can't think of anything exceptional that they've added to the reading experience but do you really want the reading experience to be anything other than "read page, turn page, repeat"-
You can read while holding the iPad in either portrait or landscape mode. In the latter orientation, you see a full two-page spread.
A pageturn (with a nifty animation that lingers only long enough for iBooks to communicate what's going on) happens when you tap anywhere on the left or right sides of the screen.
Apple is clearly proud of the iPad and the software development kit that powers it. How else to explain what happens if you slide your finger slowly across- The page slowly and responsively curls under your finger, behaving as a real page would, flopping over only when its virtual weight and real laws of physics compel it to.
If you do it very slowly and look at the back of the page as it turns over, you'll notice that you can faintly see the ink of the turned page. In reverse, as it should be, and properly mapped to the curvature of the page. It's good to see that Lady Gaga isn't the only one who still remembers a little thing called "showmanship."
There are very few additional controls on the screen to distract you from your reading. You can change the fontsize and style, search the text of the book, go to the table of contents, and scroll to a specific page. You can also adjust the screen brightness straight from the page. That's a thoughtful touch. Other readers force you to navigate out of the book and into the device's hardware settings.
I've spent about eight hours reading iBooks. The iPad hardware and the software melt away almost immediately, just as they should in any good reader. Within a minute, you're having the same immersive experience as you'd have with a printed edition.
Comparisons to traditional books render complaints about the iPad's weight and size rather moot. True, the iPad does feel a bit heavy in my hands after a half an hour. But so does a thick paperback. Even my Kindle forces me to rest my support arm against something after a while.
iTunes and ePub iBooks content has the same relationship with your desktop PC or Mac as iPhone apps do.
You can't read iBooks on your desktop. iTunes' chief role is merely to manage the content on your device and back up your library. You can't even purchase books through iTunes; the iBookstore can only be accessed via iBooks.
iTunes is also the conduit for syncing your own ePub content into the iBooks app. The locked content you purchase from the iBookstore is actually ePub with a DRM wrapper. Any unlocked ePub file (whether it's an ebook you've downloaded from another source, or a a document of you're own that you've converted to ePub) can be added to your iTunes library and then synced to your iPad by just dragging it into iTunes.
iBooks is supported by a new edition of iTunes. Version 9.1 is available this week via the app's Software Update feature or from http://itunes.apple.com/.
Is The iPad The Best eBook Reader- I led off by claiming that the iPad was the best ebook reader available, from a certain perspective. It has the biggest screen. And it can present photos and illustrations in color.
A Kindle -- and most other ebook readers, which use black-and-white electronic ink technology -- has to change all of a cookbook's mouth-watery images to grayscale.
It's not even particularly good grayscale. But electronic ink displays have an advantage over the iPad: their displays have higher contrast and resolution.
You have to peer very, very closely at them before you can even detect the dots that make up the letters. The iPad's type is noticeably less smooth. But it's still not jagged. It's perfectly comfortable to read. The iPad has something that e-ink displays lack, too: backlighting. The LCD display wouldn't work without it but it has the nice side-effect of providing your iBook with a built-in reading light.
Most of my Kindle sessions -- whether at home on the sofa or in Seat 10-A of a JetBlue flight -- begin with my turning on a light and adjusting it properly. Okay, but how well readable is the iPad in bright sunlight-
Amazon has prepared for the arrival of the iPad with an ad on their site, pointedly boasting that the Kindle is "Easy to read, even in bright sunlight." You can see the beach there in the background. Their boast is another nod to e-ink technology. At the core, it's actually dots of black ink on a light gray background. Like ink, tomato plants, and Justice, it thrives on bright light. Well, I took the iPad to an actual beach at high noon on a gorgeous cloudless New England day (gorgeous except for the 28 degree temperature and the howling winds, I should correct). I could read an iBook in sunlight just fine. It's not nearly as contrasty and clear as a Kindle, of course. I'd say that it's about as readable as a Kindle is via indirect indoor lighting. Strictly on the question of readability, I have to call this one a draw.
The Kindle has a few unbeatable advantages, though. In the price, size, and battery life portions of the competition, the iPad can't put up any kind of a fight. The Kindle 2 will fit in nearly any back pocket and most jacket pockets. My other favorite book reader, the Sony Digital Reader Pocket Edition, will even fit inside most shirt pockets.
You can almost buy two Kindle 2's or three Sonys for the price of the cheapest iPad, too. And I think I'm right in guessing that the power source of the Kindle is something atomic. I almost never think about charging it because a single fillup can last for weeks. The iPad's battery life is incredible for a device of its kind: you can count on ten hours of use per charge. But after a full day of travel and reading, you'll still need to plug it in to top off the batteries when you get to the hotel. If you find yourself near a power outlet for a few hours once every day or two, it's not that big an issue.
Let's not forget that the $259 Kindle includes access to the Store via free 3G Internet for the life of the device. To shop for books wherever you go on your iPad, add $129 for 3G capability and a minimum of $14.99 a month for the broadband service.
The most dramatic difference between the Kindle and the iPad is the depth of their respective stores. When the iBookstore opens, it'll contain 60,000 titles. The Kindle Store currently packs over 475,000 titles, "including 103 of 110 New York Times bestsellers," the company would like me to know. The iBookstore is so new that you can still smell the carpet adhesive. Nonetheless, the Kindle Store's two year headstart on the iBookstore is a big plus. Ah. But the success of the Kindle Store is also a big plus for the iPad: Amazon will be releasing a Kindle app for the device. The Kindle can only read Kindle books. The iPad can read all of those, plus every iBookstore title. And when other bookstore apps are released, you'll be able to read every Barnes & Noble title and comic books from many publishers on and on.
Kindles and Sony Readers and most other ebook devices won't go away. Nor should they. Many consumers will be attracted by their smaller size and far more reasonable prices. But after the release of the iPad, any ebook device that costs more than $400 is dead meat. The buying decision at that level boils down to one question: "For that much money, why don't I just buy an iPad- " Adios, Kindle DX ($489). Any unreleased readers (such as the Skiff and QUE proReader) are going to have to answer that question, too. And despite its $259 price, I think Barnes & Noble's Nook reader is now officially in the "Nice Try" column.
So that's why I can confidently put the iPad at the top of the tree in the e-reader competition. If the price and the size aren't obstacles to you, then it's the clear winner. And we haven't even covered the fact that reading books is only one of many, many things it does. People also forget that that Don Knotts was just as compelling as a Reluctant Astronaut or an oversexed landlord as he was as Barney Fife. It's the price of doing something exceptionally well.