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iPad or Kindle - which e-book reader is Santa toting for the holidays?

iBooks will read any ePub-formatted ebook not just commercial content purchased from Apple's iBookstore.

iBooks will read any ePub-formatted ebook, not just commercial content purchased from Apple's iBookstore.

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Updated: December 2, 2010 1:02AM

Each year, two things signify the start of the holiday season for me. First, there’s the ceremonial Two-Month Ban of Every Store And Business That Airs A Holiday Ad Before Halloween. There’s even a lovely ceremony in which I interrupt the mall’s tree-lighting ceremony to berate the store representatives in person.

The other traditional kickoff is the arrival of the first email from a reader who’s decided to buy a certain kind of tech product as a gift but needs some advice. I’m all over it. It’s part of my mandate, it’s an opportunity to perform a good deed during a period when Santa is known to be monitoring my activities closely, and unlike my other holiday tradition, it’s unlikely to cause me to appear in a YouTube video entitled “Idiot Gets Tasered By Mall Security.”

I’ll be doing a few of these over the coming weeks. Let’s kick things off with ebook readers.

This is definitely the year when ebooks crossed that invisible threshold and became a true mass-market way to buy and read books. Readers are affordable, very easy to use, and provide a great reading experience. More importantly, the library of titles is finally ready to play in the big leagues. When commercial ebookstores first appeared, you were lucky to find 2,000 titles. Then it jumped to the range of an airport bookstore.

Right now, it’s like a huge chain bookstore in a mall. If it’s a new release, you can almost count on finding it, and you can also be optimistic about backlist titles. The fact that hundreds of thousands of public-domain texts are also available almost compensates for the fact that you can’t find that book about the engineering and development of the Apollo Lunar Module.

Actually, that’s a fine example: “Moon Lander” by Thomas Kelly isn’t available as an ebook, but an equally obscure, nerdy and exciting book about the engineering of the LEM guidance computer is. That’s usually the case: even when you can’t find the exact book you’re seeking, a search will turn up something similar that’s just as interesting.

So yes: this is a great year to buy someone an ebook reader. But the new credibility of ebooks has complicated the marketplace this year. There are four front-runners in the race: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook reader, the Sony Reader line, and the iPad. There are others, and many of them cost far less, but they require a slightly higher level of user expertise and they lack a directly-linked bookstore that makes browsing and purchasing so simple.

If you want a one-sentence recommendation, go with the Kindle. Amazon backed e-publishing early and as a result, the Kindle Store is…well, it’s the of electronic books. The company is also extremely aggressive in extending the Kindle’s reach into every electronic device of any significance. If you buy a book from the Kindle store you’ll be able to re-download and read it on your iPhone, Android phone, your Blackberry, your laptop, and yes, even your iPad.

You don’t even need to own a Kindle device itself. But the reader is by no means an afterthought: it’s the best purpose-built ereader on the market. The Kindle itself is almost crazy-thin and light (he said, admiringly), delivering a big advantage over physical books and other ebook readers. The screen is super-high-contrast and is so close to print-quality that you can practically smell the soybeans.

The price is certainly right: $139 for the cheaper of the two models.

If you can afford $189, I recommend going for the 3G edition, however. It comes with free mobile broadband for the life of the device, and coverage is global. There’s no setup, either. The user switches the Kindle on and seconds later, he or she can browse and download books. That’s a key advantage in a device that’s meant to acquire new content via a wireless connection.

Another big bonus: the Kindle comes with a web browser that’s based on the same web engine as the browser that comes with the iPad and Android devices. The browser is only limited by the fact that the hardware has been optimized for turning pages of static text, as opposed to the dynamic content and webapps that an iPad or an Android phone eats for breakfast. But for optimized services like Google Reader, it works a treat.

Those fifty extra bucks mean that the recipient of this gift will be able to read all of their favorite blogs wherever they go for free. From your own selfish point of view, though, it means that you won’t spend Christmas Day on the phone with a technophobic relative 1,200 miles away, walking them through the process of connecting a WiFi device to a wireless network.

(Or worse: telling them to wait until December 26th and then drive to a Starbucks or a Panera Bread with free WiFi. Don’t assume that everyone has WiFi in their home.)

The Kindle’s closest direct competitor is Barnes & Noble’s Android-based Nook. Recently, they gave it huge upgrade: $249 now buys you a reader with a full-color touchscreen. In a world without a Kindle, it’d be a hugely-attractive device. But in practice, the new Nook comes across as a deluxe book reader instead of an affordable tablet computer. And as a ebook device it doesn’t deliver $110 worth of added value.

The bigger concern is the new Nook’s 8 hour battery life. Compare this to the Kindle, which goes on for so many weeks between charges that you’ll flip it over to see if there’s a Mr. Fusion machine bolted to the back of it.

I like Sony’s devices for their aggressively open stance. Sony has their own ebookstore, but the device will happily work with content from multiple sources and even alternative ebookstores.

But not the Kindle Store. They’re lovely devices, but they could only truly succeed if Amazon made some serious mistakes that Sony could exploit.

Which leaves us with the iPad. Its only drawback is that it’s the very best ebook reader you can buy.

No kidding. You can purchase books from Apple’s own iBookstore, the Kindle Store, the Nook store, or any independent store that sells content protected by Adobe DRM (meaning: most of them). Toss any PDF or Office file on there. Any ePUB. There are apps that will read ‘em all.

It’s by far the best screen. The Kindle screen is about as good as print. But the iPad’s is backlit, and it’s about twice as large. You won’t need a reading light and you won’t be constantly turning tiny, paperback-sized pages. The larger screen and superior font handling makes it easier to adjust type styles and sizes to suit every kind of vision.

I have both an iPad and a Kindle. I buy almost all of my books from the Kindle store but read practically none of them on the Kindle device itself. It’s just a far more comfortable reading experience.

Er, except for the iPad’s weight and size, of course. The Kindle will fit in almost any jacket or back pocket. The iPad will fit ... in any shoulder bag. If the bag is large enough.

I wish the iPad were lighter, but truth be told it’s no harder to hold during marathon reading sessions than a conventional book. I have to score “size and weight” as a specific advantage of the Kindle rather than a disadvantage of the iPad, if you follow.

Overall, it’s probably unfair two compare the two devices directly. The Kindle’s brilliant because Amazon decided to focus on just building a kick-butt device for reading electronic books. The iPad’s a huge success because Apple invented a new class of computer that’s well suited for all forms of media, and that can even sub for a notebook in many situations. I travel a lot and love the fact that for shorter trips, the iPad is the only big device I need.

The iPad has an obvious gotcha: the cheapest one is $500. If that’s really your budget for this friend or relative’s gift, you should ask yourself “Would this person rather have a 3G Kindle plus a box containing $321 in cash?” The iPad is meant to be much, much more than a book reader and it’s priced accordingly.

Plus, if Apple remains true to form, they’ll soon update the entire iPad line and sell them for the same prices as the current models. That’s just speculation, and I wouldn’t expect new iPads to ship any sooner than Spring, but it’s something to keep in mind if you have the kind of friends and relatives who don’t care if you’re several months late with a present.

Either way, it’s a good idea to make this particular decision sooner rather than later. Both Apple and Amazon have had problems keeping up with heavy demand and if you wait until December to make your purchase, you might wind up gift-wrapping an I.O.U. instead of a spiffy and shiny gadget.

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