Showdown: 5 iPad Reading Apps

Now that all the commercial e-book distributors have made their iPad (s aapl) apps available, it’s time for an overview of how each app performs, along with their pluses and minuses.

One of my primary goals with the iPad was reducing the amount of paper clutter in my house. As a voracious reader, my home library was quickly approaching the need for a Dewey decimal system. While Andy Ihnatko is known for living a year of digital media last year, for a while now I’ve been trying to reach that goal myself.

The good news is, the iPad makes it very easy to purchase and consume digital media. I’ve had no eye strain issues with the iPad, having read over 10 books on it since its launch. Neither have I found the weight of the device to be a big issue — however I usually keep it propped on something. Reading outdoors is a problem with the glare, though, and there’s no way I’d want to bring my iPad to a beach.

The bad news is, there’s really not one app that’s perfect — especially if you have non-DRM e-books you also want to read in the same app with DRM’d content. Because each store’s content ranges from fantastic to abysmal, it can also be hard to find a single-stop app. However, if you are of the mind to strip the DRM yourself from books you’ve legally obtained, it is possible to get them all into iBooks.

So, here’s how I found each app to hold up. While many of these apps also have iPhone versions, for this article I’m going to be focusing on the iPad.


iBooks is Apple’s e-reader. It can read books purchased from the iBookstore, as well as non-DRMd epub-formatted books and PDFs. I found the app to be visually pleasing, and little touches like the page turning animation heightened my enjoyment of reading on the app — it’s trivial, I know, but the little touches add up. iBooks also keeps the PDF and e-books on separate bookshelves, which I found easy to find content with instead of hunting through a large selection.

I did find the PDF reader to be slightly wonky, though. I did an initial sync of about 20 PDFs, but the first time I used the “open with” feature in iOS to open a PDF, it removed all the existing PDFs, leaving just the imported document. I also had the app crash reading a PDF, and that also removed all the PDFs, with the extra bonus of also removing all the e-books on the subsequent sync — and let me tell you, getting all the books back in was a hassle, requiring an app reinstall, and multiple syncs and a lot of four-letter words. Clearly, iBooks 1.1 has that “rushed out the door” taste.

Version 1.1 introduces the ability to add notes (only to epub files; not PDFs) and these, as well as your position, sync to iBooks on the iPhone.

iBooks is also the only one of the apps I found that allows you to manually change the order of how books appear on your bookshelf. I found this handy for arranging a queue of sorts for the order I wanted to read books. You can also get very granular in iTunes for how you categorize the books, and iBooks will let you sort ¬†on them. While reinstalling the app and/or books will preserve your location in the book, the book’s place on your bookshelf is not. So, after that lost e-books saga I just talked about, I had to go in and re-order my shelf again.

While Apple claims that “5 of the 6 world’s largest publishers” are on the iBookstore, that missing one is Random House, which is the largest publisher. Therefore, the iBookstore selection is weaker than Apple would have you believe. Also, you can only view iBookstore from within the iBooks app.


Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindle app is a very pain-free reading experience on the iPad, especially if you’re an existing user of the hardware Kindle. After signing into your Kindle account on the app, you’ll be able to download all your purchased books. It won’t grab them all on initial launch; you’ll need to go into Archived Books to download them.

While you cannot side-load your own e-books, and adding content will require your iPad to be connected to the Internet, Amazon’s Kindle store is first-class. I had a tremendous success rate finding books.

Like iBooks, Kindle also allows for annotating, but here’s where I feel the Kindle infrastructure really shines. While you are locked into the Kindle infrastructure from a DRM standpoint, the Kindle app is available on iOS, Mac, PC, Android, and Blackberry, So you’re not locked into a hardware and software combination like you are with iBooks.

Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble (s bn) is late to the e-book party — its Nook reader came out late last year. That said, the app does a few nice things: in addition to adding notes and bookmarks, you can also Google (s goog) or look up on Wikipedia highlighted text.

The app is very customizable. It ships with a few themes. Instead of the garish themes you might find on a skinning site, these are all very readable. If you don’t see a viewing selection you like, you can make your own within the app.

I found the bookstore selection to be very good — on par with Amazon’s. As with Amazon, you can also get readers for various platforms. You will need to have the iPad connected to the Internet to put books on it, but you can view the bookstore on the web. If you are a Barnes and Noble member, you will not get an additional discount on e-books like you can with a paper book.


Stanza is an interesting little e-book reader. It’s very side-loadable; it’s the only app that will let you “open with” both e-books and PDFs. By default it will connect to a handful of e-bookstores, and you can also read DRM’d content from on it. As with iBooks, you can annotate non-PDF books. You can also use the file-sharing feature within iTunes to transfer content, too.

If you’re not already a customer of one of the large e-bookstores, Stanza is a very appealing app. I love how you can just throw books at it from a variety of sources without any problems. I did find the library view to be wanting, though. The type was a little large for my tastes, and while I could change the thumbnail sizes (or turn them off all-together), I couldn’t see where to adjust the font size.


Zinio is more of an e-magazine reader than an e-book reader. I’m mentioning it here because magazines are a large part of my media consumption. At first, the Zinio app got off a rough start. Every time you turned a page, it would take a while to for the page to finish loading. That’s gotten better, though, and page views are almost immediate. While there are viewers out for the Mac, PC, and iOS, Apple’s censorship arm also reaches to the Zinio platform — some titles are not available on the iPad, even though far more explicit material is available in the iBookstore.

I’ve found the selection to be merely OK. You can read MacUser and Macworld UK, as well as Macworld U.S. National Geographic also looks amazing on it. Of my regular reading choices, only Macworld and National Geographic are available via Zinio. The various writing magazines I read are not.

I did find the subscription prices to be very enticing. I grabbed a subscription to Esquire for only $8.

Wrapping Up

Until iBooks started its crash festival, it was my favorite for reading. However, since the bulk of my purchases come from Amazon, and the Kindle app has never, ever, crashed and lost my books, I’m going to be using that app more often. Amazon is also the leader for content, with iBookstore coming in at a distant third. Maybe it’s my reading tastes, but a search of books I was interested in yielded less than a 10 percent success rate. Also, while I love Apple and all, I’m more willing to invest in a reading infrastructure that supports the widest variety of platforms.

What is nice to see is the iPad does deliver on the promise of virtual reading.

What about you? What iPad reading app do you prefer?