iPad vs Kindle: should you get an e-Book reader?

Pete Cooper
Tuesday, 12th July 2011

It's easy to dismiss e-Books as a fad - another gadget-dependent way for us to spend our hard-earned money. But the enormous environmental cost of conventional, 'dead tree' publishing should convince anyone to take a closer look at any technology that promises as more sustainable alternative. So that's what we asked our resident tech-wizard, Pete Cooper, to do...

Computers were my 'thing' when I was back at school and they were how I cut my teeth in the early part of my career; technical support jobs involving guiding people through how to do stuff on the computers they used at their workplace. I did technical support as a career for about 6 years, although I've been doing technical support for people that know I can do technical support for as long as I can remember.

In a former life however, I devoured paper books with reckless abandon, shunning the usual pursuits of people my age by chewing through pages of textual goodness and escaping into whatever was happening on the page. I love the smell of new books, more so than old. Dr Chris Johnstone's Find Your Power has a nice whiff to it, and the printed photos in Sepp Holzer's Permaculture give it an entirely different, but still pleasant, aroma. As is the case for many of us I imagine, I have limited space for books. It's a small house, and working from home with my wife (Emma Cooper, author of The Alternative Kitchen Garden ...and yes, that is our back garden on the front cover) means a sizable portion of the floorspace is already set aside for our respective offices. The sad truth is that my bookshelves are just about full.

I am confident, however, that I've found a good balance between the wired and un-wired worlds of reading: electronic books, or e-books. In the main, e-books have the same content as their printed  brethren, albeit with no paper, printing process or binding. These electronic book versions are simply files that are readable on computer screens, handheld book-reading devices (also known as e-book readers) and some mobile phones. As I write this in the summer of 2011, two of the most popular e-book readers are the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad, both of which I own and have used over the past few months. There are numerous (and increasing) other readers available on the market, but, as I haven't had long-term experience of them, I am not in a position to comment on them. What follows is, hopefully, a technobabble-free comparison and user review of the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad. 

Key Differences: Kindle vs iPad

  • The Kindle 3 has a 15cm (6") greyscale (black and white) LCD screen. The iPad has a larger 24cm (9.7") glass, full-colour touchscreen, which makes it over three times as heavy as the Kindle 3 whic is smaller and lighter, weighing in at 225g (8oz) 
  • The glossy iPad screen is backlit with basic brightness control, the matt-finish Kindle screen doesn't have a backlight but does have a contrast control.
  • The Kindle has a small QWERTY keyboard and some navigation buttons to help you around the various menus and options. The iPad keyboard appears as part of the touch screen when needed (for example, sending an email or browsing the Internet), but it has no physical keyboard.  

Both:

  • Come supplied with charging cables which, when connected to the USB port on your computer, can also be used to transfer things back and forth, be they e-books, music or whatever else.
  • Both devices can, in my experience, be charged from the USB port on a Solar Gorilla from my home in Oxfordshire, England on sunny days. Charging a device from solar power is all well and good in my little world, and it certainly saves on munching the juice coming out of the wall sockets.

Using iPad outdoors

Speaking of sunny days, the iPad is close to useless outside in the sun. Really, it's awful. The beautiful glossy, glass touchscreen is not fond of the sunshine, and all sunny days succeed in providing is a smeary a touchscreen. The Kindle, though, is great outdoors. The screen is not glossy, and performs far better than the iPad if you're outside on sunny days. It's far more conducive to sitting on the grass, lazing in a chair or hiding away in your garden shed, especially if you've spent the household food budget on a new Kindle and your partner isn't pleased.

Specs for iPad; specs for Kindle

The technology inside the iPad is far more advanced than the Kindle; the Kindle is designed to be an e-book reader, a job it does very well, whereas the iPad has e-book reading capabilities from one of its many thousands of applications. The Kindle has recently acquired very basic Internet browsing capability thanks to a free-to-download software update. Given the choice, I wouldn't use a Kindle for looking at web pages – for one, the colour aspect of the Internet is gone, you're surfing in shades of grey. The iPad is essentially more like a laptop or handheld computer than an e-book reader. The focus of the iPad is the overall user experience across all of the things it can do – an experience which, to me, is more intuitive than the Kindle, but this is entirely down to personal choice. Both Kindle and iPad have wireless (wi-fi) networking bits built-in as standard. 

iPad and Kindle Memory Capacity

Both of these devices have an internal memory for thousands of text-centric books, but neither have a camera-style memory card slot for upgrading. The more photos, diagrams and pictures an e-book has, the larger it will be. Photo-heavy titles like Ben Law's Roundwood Timber Framing are larger than epic text-heavy works like Patrick Whitefield's recently-updated The Earth Care Manual. Simon Fairlie's Meat is a great example of text-heavy small-memory book. Except for the front and back covers, there are simple-yet-clear diagrams accompanying the text, meaning a shorter download time and less of your storage space taken up. 

How readable is the text on an iPad or Kindle?

When you buy a paper book, it's typically arranged and printed to the publisher's specifications, even on this website, the text you're seeing has been formatted to be displayed in a readable style. Clever folks have already decided how far apart the words should be, how high the lines are etc. And therein lies the success: they get it right so you don't have to worry about it. However, with an e-book, you have a level of control over how you read your text. If you're familiar with changing the appearance of text in a document on a computer in, say, Microsoft Office or Word, then this is what you should expect from an e-book reader. Most readers, regardless of their origin, can change the size, spacing, and layout of the text. If you prefer large type, you can have it. If you like to have hundreds of words on a page with smaller text, no problem. Don't like the fancy font the text is shown in? Chances are you can change it to something simpler. You may find that reading on the bus is easier with more space between the lines. Once you've read a few e-books on a Kindle or iPad, you begin to know what works for you, and that's the key. The iPad has a clever function of being able to change the text background from white to sepia, giving e-books a bit of a nostalgic, aged look and being easier on the eyes late at night. 

Downloading PDFs on an iPad or Kindle

Both Kindle and iPad can display PDFs. Neither device does it absolutely perfectly, but the iPad does a far better job at it and the Kindle is limited to showing shades of grey. Again, the PDF function is a fairly new addition to the Kindle via a free software update. As a reader, you are restricted to how the PDF is laid out by the publisher. There is little or no change to this layout that you as a reader can make as t he clever design folks have made the PDF to look like the paper version of the book.

e-Book Availability

Over time, publishers will make new and old books available as downloads, both from places like the Green Shopping e-books page and the relevant online stores for Kindle and iPad. Amazon's Kindle store has a larger range of books than Apple's iBooks store by virtue of it having a head-start by over a year. Both have a large selection of free-to-download books. The first Kindle-native e-book from Permanent Publications is Chrissie Sugden's Grounds For Hope and is available for immediate download from both Green Shopping and the Amazon Kindle store. Even with Amazon's relatively fast shipping, there's a lot to be said for immediate fulfillment. That's another key difference between paper books and e-books – spur-of-the-moment impulse purchases are just that, they're typically delivered to you in less than a minute and you don't need to constantly listen for delivery trucks. 

iPad, Kindle and e-Book Prices

Expect to pay considerably more for an iPad than a Kindle; typically, a basic iPad is about three-and-a-half times the price of a standard Kindle. E-book prices will vary from title to title, but are largely similar across the various formats, so you won't normally pay a premium.

iPad Durability; Kindle Durability

The price difference has had a practical impact on how I treat each device, however. My Kindle is light, portable, and crucially I don't feel the need to wrap it up in cotton wool to protect it. My iPad, however, has an after-market protective cover. I am far more wary of where it's used and stored and I wouldn't dare throw it in a rucksack like I would with a Kindle.

Where can I buy an iPad, Kindle and e-Books?

You can buy a Kindle direct from Amazon.com for domestic or international shipment and selected high street and online retailers. As a resident Limey, I bought my Kindle direct from Amazon.co.uk. You can buy an iPad from the Apple store online, via their retail stores and also at other 3rd party retailers. In both cases, the prices are largely similar from place to place. In my experience, Amazon are cheapest for iPads and Kindles, though pricing in each territory will vary slightly. An interesting recent development is the arrival of an ad-supported Kindle, which is available for a lower price ($25 less) than the standard (ad-free) version, though currently only available to North America. Called the Kindle with Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers, it displays special offers and sponsored screen savers when you're not reading. There are clearly pros and cons to this new version, though it might be worth looking into if you're impervious to advertising and on a tighter budget. The screen savers on the standard version are portraits of well-known authors and other innocuous/uncontroversial book artwork. 

How Big is the Carbon Footprint? - Packaging

Both companies have made thoughtful decisions on reducing packing weight and wasted space. Both product boxes are small and well-packed, with the Kindle packing verging on minimalist. At the time of purchasing, both of my devices has card outers and no blown polystyrene inside. The Kindle tray was recycled card and I don't recall any plastic being used. My iPad packing tray was marked as PET and can be readily recycled where facilities exist. Less wasted space in the box means more efficient packing, which means fewer cargo shipping containers in the long run. Ultimately, each device was designed in the USA, manufactured and assembled in China and then shipped to its destination, so bear this in mind if you are mindful of the embodied carbon of each device.

Conclusion: What's the best e-reader?

Within the confines of an article about e-books, it's fair to say the extra stuff the iPad can do make it more suitable for people who are less voracious book consumers and want more of a computer experience with email, web browsing and the like. If I wanted a device primarily for reading text-heavy e-books, I'd get a Kindle. It does the job very well and I'm completely happy with it. Whether or not e-books are appropriate for the permaculture movement remains to be seen: there are compelling and rational arguments for and against, something which I'll go into more detail with in a future article.

If I've achieved what I set out to do, you're read this far and learned a bit (or a lot) about the basics of Kindles and iPads. I could talk for hours on this subject but I will close by asking you to leave any outstanding questions in the comments below if you've got that spooked look on your face after reading this, and I will do my best to answer them. For now, however, I am going to shut down my computer, grab my Kindle, go outside in the sunshine and read a book...

ostephenson |
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 19:02
As an engineer and critical thinker, I'd have to say that the environmental impact of all of the books in my house, of which there are hundreds of pounds, is much, much smaller than the impact of buying the number of e-book readers I would have gone through in the 40+ years of collecting them. If your Kindle is still operating in 3 years and you haven't upgraded to the newest version, then you are doing better than 99% of the people who buy one. The mount of paper saved in that 3 years is no where near the impact of manufacturing and then trashing the e-reader. My copy of "The Diamond Age" will still be readable in 10, 20, and 100 years as will "Little Dorrit" and "Advanced Engineering Mathematics". Good luck with your e-book download. Perhaps a better way to look at the whole book thing is that paper books are a durable good. They will be just as functional a century from now as they have been since the first millennium. The 12 or so computers I have gone trough since puberty and the dozen cell phones since I worked on the first 'brick' and the iPhone I have now are NOT durable goods. Manufacturing of durable goods is generally better economically, environmentally and even morally than disposable technology.
Pete Cooper |
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 14:32
Hi, ostephenson. Thanks for your comment. There's an article linked on the front page of permaculture.co.uk today about doing stuff on narrowboats. There is finite space on a boat, as I have in my house. If you're in the position that you have hundreds of pounds of books in your house, then you likely have the luxury of shelf space. Sadly, I do not have that. Folks on narrowboats are not in the position where they can add hundreds of pounds of paper books to their loads without affecting the mechanics of moving in water. I have hundreds of books and I'm at the stage now where I operate a one-out-one-in policy - a requirement due to restricted space. I still buy paper books, but I'm more aware of the embodied energy in each one. Books are printed on paper from either virgin or recycled wood pulp. They use ink from whatever source they get ink from, glue to hold it all together, and then they're kept in a warehouse. Books are then sent out to traditional high street stores, Internet retailers, other retail outlets and – increasingly often – direct to the customer via postal mail. A print run of 5,000 books may involve many hundreds or thousands of individual journeys to ensure said books reach the customer. And yes, when you have it, it's readable for years and years to come. No batteries required. No screens to break. Just hope you don't get an attack of insects that are fond of starch and partial to chomping on paper books. You can get round this by keeping your books in a freezer, but that's not entirely practical. The electronic reader I have is made of plastic, metal, silicon and other such things mined from the ground. I can (and do, where possible) recharge it from a solar panel...which is made of plastic, metal and silicon. I know there were a bunch of machines involved with getting those components together in the first place, and that my Kindle was made in China, shipped over to the UK, lived in a warehouse for a month or two and then arrived with me thanks to a FedEx man in a van. It weighs the same when it has no books stored on it to when it has a thousand books on it. That's the only trip it has to make, until it passes on and has to be decommissioned. There's always a risk that any given file format may end up rotting if it's not maintained (especially if Sony have any say in inventing it in the first place), and the more widespread a file format is, the more it's understood and the more likely it is to survive in some shape or form. Paper books need a source of raw materials, and I'm 100% in favour of anything that gives folks a reason to plant more trees, even if ultimately they're going to be felled for the latest Dan Brown Oxfam-fodder. There are jobs associated with the planting and upkeep of trees, and I suspect obtaining wood from companies dealing with sustainable forests is rather more virtuous than dealing with companies that mine metal things from the ground. I'm not comparing print books to electronic books in my article. I'm not saying you should rush out and buy an electronic reader to enjoy your books. I credit anyone reading this website/article with enough intelligence to make a salient decision on whether an electronic reader is a good fit for them. It's not up to me to decide whether anyone should buy a book, a reader, a certain brand or toilet roll, toothpaste or tea. Sure, I can tell you how I get on with each product, and that may assist someone making a decision either way, but I'm not a persuasionist.
Cali |
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 13:08
Hi Peter and Ostephenson, Thank you so much for your passionate discussion about how to keep our reading volume high and our ecological footprint low. It certainly seems to lead that there are no single solution for everybody but only certain rules that might be useful for almost all cases. Something that Ostephenson claimed defending traditional (forest-made) books is their condition of "durable". Going further with his point of view, not necessarily we need to have all that luxurious space at home. Some of us were lucky and we were born in places where libraries are quiet an old tradition. Libraries have the positive side of handling durables and also allow something extremely sustainable as it is "sharing with others". Indeed this is not possible on a narrowboat, so I am not intending to contradict Peter and his personal opinions about kindlers and I-pads at all. Probably part of the challenge of sustainability is that each person need to become aware of their own circumstances and capabilities in the whole system.
Katie Finlayson |
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 17:00
First off, I'd challenge the 'books are durable' theory. Some very well looked after and preserved books are, but the majority of standard issue paperbacks are falling apart within 30 years even with minimal use - the glue and bindings just aren't up to generations (I'm basing this on the handmedown and out of print children's books I've been buying for my children recently). Still much better than the expected lifespan of a Kindle, I grant you, but it probably won't be readable in 100 years. That said, I love books, and I also think there are many ways in which some books are better in print form - mainly the sort of reference/theory book that you may want to show or lend to others, or books heavy on pictures or diagrams. I'll not be switching to electronic format for these any time soon; but for disposable read-once fiction, it works very well. However, I'll not be buying an ebook reader - I have the Kindle app on my mobile phone and download (generally free) books to that. It's always in my pocket if I have a few minutes to spare, and it's a gadget (right or wrong) I have anyway so it's not adding significantly to my carbon footprint. And it has the big bonus of me being able to read it while feeding the baby to sleep without disturbing him by page turning or dropping a book on his head!
Pete Cooper |
Thu, 21/07/2011 - 11:27
Hi Cali. Thanks for your feedback - I like your take on the library angle, you're absolutely right. I haven't used our local library for years, I'm ashamed to admit – I don't know whether it's a psychological barrier to me borrowing something that someone else has ownership rights to and I'm paranoid that I'll lose/break it, or something as simple as the place is a real pain in the bum to get to...or just laziness now that I have Green Shopping delivering to my door. I'm spoiled, really. I absolutely agree with your comment about awareness of each person to their own impact - I haven't done absolute calculations of each format, nor do I have any real desire to be nitpicky about the differences (or play Carbon Footprint Top Trumps), but a modicum of common sense from everyone would make things a lot more sustainable. Hi Katie. Thank you for your comment. I'm finding that I agree with your sentiment toward the differences between the two formats, especially with the weighty tomes that deserve a print run (as pompous as that may sound). Your point of a Kindle app is important, too - thanks for the reminder. There are (free) Kindle readers for most desktop computers and mobile devices, which is encouraging, and being able to read something without buying a new electro-thingy or chopping some trees down is a marvellous thing.
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