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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kindle vs. Itouch: The throwdown

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I can't believe it's been nearly a month since I last blogged. I'd resolved early in 2008 to post a couple of times a week whenever I could, and until June or so, I pretty much managed to stick to it. But for a variety of reasons July and now part of August got away from me. I thank you all for your patience. I'm glad to be back.

I've blogged off and on over the past several months about Amazon.com's e-reading device, Kindle. Well, I finally acquired one in early June and have spent my summer travels field-testing it in preparation for a paper I'll be presenting at the American Studies Association convention this October. I also happened to purchase an iPod Touch this summer, and despite Apple CEO Steve Jobs' claim that people don't read anymore, I've been indulging in Plato's Parmenides using the device's Stanza e-reading application. My experiences with both devices have been striking. Because their differences seem to me more acute than their similarities, I figured now might be an appropriate time for a Kindle versus iTouch "throwdown."

Kindle
I'll be honest: I'm pretty surprised by the reported success of Kindle and its rosy prospects for the future. The device does what it's supposed to do, more or less, but as sophisticated as it may be, Kindle still strikes me as fairly primitive.

For me, Kindle's "wow" factor comes mainly from the built-in EVDO wireless technology, which allows you to download any Kindle edition in the Amazon catalog anywhere, on the fly, without a separate laptop or mobile phone. As a researcher and writer, there's something alluring (and potentially, economically draining) about having instantaneous access to a library consisting of 125,000+ titles, many (although not all) of which cost less than their printed counterparts. No doubt Amazon wants users to second-guess making trips to the library or to nearby bookstores.

Still, I find title navigation to be awkward and unpredictable. It's easy enough to find my way to a Kindle book's cover, title page, interior chapters, and other major landmarks , but making my way through the highlights, notes and dog ears I've made rarely results in my ending up where I'd meant to go. The highlighting and note-making functions work well enough; their precision is limited, however, by the fact that you can only highlight entire lines rather than individual words, and only then on a single page at a time.

As for the much-heralded e-ink screen, it reminds me of an Etch-a-Sketch, only crisper. The latter, incidentally was first released in 1973--around the time that color TV really began to take over in earnest in the U.S. from the old black and white system. I wish Amazon had taken a cue here and aimed for a color screen, although I realize that their doing so could have resulted in an undesirable price point for Kindle. The screen renders text quite well, although it still seems vaguely pixelated to me. Word spacing and character tracking could be improved. Images are another matter, though. A colleague to whom I showed my Kindle told me he was "disappointed" by the device's ability to render images. I agree.

Then, of course, there's Amazon's proprietary e-book format and its use of digital rights management. I've already blogged about these at length, so I won't belabor the point here except to say three words: open content, please!

iPod Touch
Talk about "wow" factor all around. The device looks great, it fits in the palm of your hand, and it's not a single-use device. (Kindle, incidentally, comes with an experimental web browser and plays mp3s.) This last point is especially important. I'm a fan of The Food Network's Alton Brown, who insists that kitchen devices dedicated to a single foodstuff generally ought to be avoided, for they too easily become superfluous. (Salad Shooter, anyone?) With a proliferation of high-tech gadgetry ranging from laptops to mobile phones, e-readers, and more, getting a device that can do more, and do "more" exceptionally well, should be the order of the day. That's what the iTouch delivers.

There are a bunch of e-reading applications available for the iPod Touch and iPhone, but for now, I prefer Stanza. It's free, as are the books associated with the software. The free content is both an advantage and a drawback. The advantage, of course, is that all Stanza books are available gratis, brought to you courtesy of the public domain using the non-proprietary, Open E-Book formatting standard. On the downside, Stanza only offers "classic" works of fiction and non-fiction. Anything current will have wait for decades to make its way to Stanza, a result of the egregious extension of copyright terms.

Text on the iTouch version of Stanza renders beautifully, and the tactile navigation's a breeze. The screen is bright, clear...and in color. The major limitation I see is the application's inability to mark text and to record annotations. Here Kindle is the clear winner. I realize, though, that not everyone reads books like me; I plod through text, underlining passages and making notes as I go. But for those who simply read, there shouldn't be much of a problem.

Bottom Line
If someone would only synthesize the best features of Kindle and the iTouch, then we'd have an exceptional e-reader on our hands. For now, Kindle wins on the number of available titles and annotation features, while iTouch/Stanza is ahead on just about everything else. On balance, I suppose that I'm more impressed with the latter than I am with the former.

6 comments:

Valdis Krebs said...

When the iPod Touch comes in a larger format [5x7?] and includes OS X's Preview app then the Kindle will become... well, kindling... a.k.a. toast.

Of course Apple developing iText for books/docs to be like iTunes for music will totally throw Amazon for a loop... but who knows if that will happen.

I use the iTouch currently to consume new books in audible.com format. The only time I miss text is when I want to "underline a passage" [bookmark a key a-ha]... otherwise I am happy to listen to most books -- played at a faster speed than originally recorded.

Keith Fahlgren said...

When you're on the interwebs, you should check out the fabulous .epub reader Bookworm on your iPhone.

Maggie said...

Interesting post. I don't have an iPhone, but I have used the Kindle, and I agree that its best feature is the wireless connectivity. It makes the Kindle much easier to use than the Sony Reader, which I've also had some (not great) experience with. Sony's setup process is a pretty big barrier to entry compared to the Kindle and especially compared to opening a book.

As a point of comparison, I wonder if you've ever heard of the company I work for, DailyLit, a site that allows entire books to be read via email or RSS. You can read installments on your computer or mobile device--in this case, the iPhone--and personalize the delivery schedule. We offer many free titles and have made some contemporary works available for a small fee too.

Joe said...

@valdis What do you mean about Preview? IPhone can read PDF files, and probably everything else Preview can. You can't manage files on the iPhone file system, alas, so you'd have to have a web URL to any PDF.

Agreed that the iPhone/Touch form factor is too small for serious reading though.

Mark said...

Although I grudgingly agree that a slightly bigger screen for the iPhone/Touch would be nice for reading books, a bigger form factor would make it more cumbersome and harder to keep at hand. A read a great deal on my Touch, mostly because it's on me all the time. A Kindle wouldn't spend much time in my pocket simply due to it's size.

But for me, the Touch is a clear winner because it is so much more than an ebook reader. The Touch is basically a general purpose computer complete with web-browser and, with the App Store, has a wide range of software.

It's hard to ignore the Touch's lower price.

Lastly, the already excellent Stanza is continually improving and now has access to non-free content. But with Amazon's Kindle app field the iPhone/Touch, there really isn't much left in favour of the Kindle...except the larger screen.

Christian Beyer said...

I know this is coming in a bit late, but the eReader software, which I have been reading books on my Palm for years, works very, very well on the IPod Touch and IPhone. And it has all the bells and whistles you are looking for.