If you, like me, are weighing the pros and cons of the various e-readers out there, you may be wondering if the iPad might be the cost-effective choice (despite its $750 price tag for 3G). Every year brings a new development in web functionality and digital publishing, and no one has quite figured out yet which combination of features works best on which size gadget. Most of us have figured out that the smartphone is just too small for meaningful computing, yet the laptop, at times, is just too big. Many of us are thinking the tablet is the answer. But is now the right time to buy? If the e-reader function is at the top of your must-have list, I believe the answer is no – or at least, not yet.

I bought my Kindle several years ago – it’s not the latest generation, but it’s not the oldest either. But now that real industry standards for epub 3 are out, last week I bought the iPad 2, which supports epub 3 and thus enhanced e-books – something the Kindle can’t do. So far three authors have asked me to integrate enhanced features in their manuscripts and proposals, and since I also do book design, the iPad is unquestionably a game-changer. So the decision to buy was a simple business decision: required product research. But I was also personally interested in the iPad’s functionality as a multi-purpose computing tool – could it replace my laptop too? If it was a good e-reader, and it could let me edit on the run, it would be a considerable bargain.

Here are the pros and cons of each, as one avid cloud-computer and e-reader sees it:

Kindle

Pros:

  • Lightweight (easy to hold in one hand, just like a book)
  • Digital ink is easy on the eyes for long periods of reading
  • Page-turning is easy on the eyes (screen just refreshes instead of sliding, blurry, to the next page like the iPad)
  • Convenient one-hand reading (“next page” button is right where your hand is when holding it – no need to touch the screen)
  • Affordable price for an e-reader ($139 for wi-fi, or $114 if you don’t mind advertisements). More than pays for itself if you consider the saved space on your bookshelves, saved time in ordering, and saved money in e-versions. I buy a LOT of books.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G: I like my 3G, but there was no wi-fi option when I bought mine. My husband has the wi-fi version, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. Since Kindle is an exclusive e-reader, it’s not a huge inconvenience (for U.S. users, at least) to make sure to download books when you’re in range. You don’t need to be connected to read your books. So the even more affordable wi-fi version seems adequate.
  • Overall – a reader’s e-reader, great for reading standard books and curling up on the couch

Cons:

  • Does not have full Internet browser. So it can’t double as a phone (via skype), a computer, etc. This means it’s another gadget to carry that may duplicate perfectly adequate e-reading technology in your phone or laptop.
  • Does not have enhanced e-book capabilities. Epub 3 has just been released, so almost all publishers are working to take full advantage of its design capabilities. Video, enlarged graphics, and multiple links will be seamlessly integrated with the text, which means reading these books absolutely requires constant connection to the web. A touchscreen will almost certainly be the primary way to interface best with these books – or whatever they will be called. (“Enhanced e-book” is just too long a term to be used for much longer. This is definitely a new animal, but no one’s named it yet – we’re still just describing it, because it’s still being made.) Enter – the iPad.

iPad

Pros:

  • Enhanced e-book capabilities (for significance, see above)
  • Full Internet browser. This is the multifunctional gadget extraordinaire: if you save docs in the cloud it can double as a laptop (as long as you’re just primarily reading them); it syncs to iTunes so it doubles as an iPod, and if you need more screen space it can also double as a second monitor. For some it could function as both a laptop and a more convenient e-reader. The larger screen makes it much more user-friendly than a smartphone – but like a smartphone, it’s still primarily for e-mail, document viewing, and entertainment – until Office and Adobe CS go fully into the cloud.
  • Wi-fi vs. 3G – iPad has both versions, just like the Kindle does, but since there’s no point in buying the iPad if you don’t want to take advantage of its internet browser, the 3G is far more valuable to the iPad than the Kindle, which makes the price differential even greater (see below).
  • Overall, a convenient e-reader for early adopters – for those who prefer their e-reader as a side dish rather than the main course, and who were primarily looking for a larger smartphone screen. The iPad’s main course is convenient Internet access everywhere, taking full advantage of all the web has to offer (which is a lot). But it’s not everything:

Cons:

  • The PRICE – for 3G, which I think you would absolutely need if you depended on its internet features away from home, it runs upward of $750, compared to $139 or less for a Kindle wi-fi.
  • The weight – too heavy to hold for reading in one hand.
  • Backlit screen and motion-sickness-inducing page sliding is harder on the eyes (sliding applies to epub 2 designed books – which, granted, is the past industry standard, but most e-books available now are in this format). Disclaimer: few may be bothered by the blurring of the page when swiping to turn pages, but I read pretty quickly and very often, so this swiping adds up for me.

If you haven’t already deduced, after using the iPad for a little while, I still much prefer my Kindle for reading books. The iPad is just too heavy to hold like a book, and the touchscreen (although it allows for cool design features in epub 3 books like translucent pages that really look like they’re turning) means you have to keep moving your hand to turn the page. (The Kindle has a button right where your hand is when you’re holding the book, so you don’t even have to move your hand. Very easy one-hand reading.) As an e-reader, Kindle is just easier for me to use. I look at a backlit screen all day, so the digital ink is a relief.

Even though it’s beautifully designed, as an e-reader the iPad is too much like a computer, yet as a laptop, it’s too much like a smartphone – it’s too small (even with the add-on keyboard, which is awkwardly small). I need the full features of Microsoft Word to do my work, which isn’t available on the cloud yet. So I can’t say I’d personally recommend it, based on what I need a portable gadget to do.

Bottom line: an iPad is great for people who have limited e-reader needs and limited computing needs, and want the latest and greatest multifunctional gadget that can combine an e-reader and full internet access, where the Internet functionality is the main course and the e-reader’s an added bonus. It’s also a must-have for publishing professionals and designers, as it’s a game-changer right now. But if you’re a heavy e-reader user or a heavy laptop user, it isn’t quite good enough on either count. Also, the price is very high right now, while Kindle’s is pretty low – the differential is about $600. You can get away with the wi-fi Kindle if you’re careful to buy books when you’re in range, if it isn’t too inconvenient. Everyone’s investing in tablet technology right now, and even though Apple’s is the most impressive tablet to date, I don’t think the iPad has got it quite right yet – I’d wait until more workhorse computer programs have a fully functional cloud version for the general public (like Office and Adobe CS) so internet access is enough to do a full day’s work, or until more books are using the epub3 format (there are only a handful right now, and they’re not that helpful yet) – and you decide that’s a good thing. Amazon is working on its own tablet, which may just add features to its Kindle, or be a whole new animal. There was only a year-and-a-half between the first iPad and the iPad 2, so in a couple years, maybe a tablet will be the thing to buy.

But if you’re primarily looking for an e-reader for text-based books and you still need a full laptop, I’d say the iPad isn’t cost effective…yet. Stick with the Kindle for both affordability and functionality.