Before Apple released the first iPad, we doubted that we’d ever want to use it as our primary reading device. Compared to the Kindle, with its reader-friendly E Ink technology and superlight weight, we thought the iPad would be hard on the eyes and clunky.

Boy, were we wrong. We now enjoy reading books on our iPads almost as much as we do on our Kindle 3s. The biggest question isn’t whether to read books on the iPad, but rather which app to use.

Virtual bookstores

The two e-reading apps we use most on the iPad are Amazon’s Kindle app (free; www.amazon.co.uk) and Apple’s iBooks app (free; www.apple.com). Each is free, and each is linked to its own dedicated store. To buy Kindle books from the iPad, you must use a web browser to shop at Amazon’s Kindle Bookstore. Apple’s iBookstore is embedded in the iBooks app.

The iBooks reader app has a built-in bookstore. But the selection is nowhere near as good as what Amazon offers for the Kindle

More significantly, Amazon’s selection is far bigger than Apple’s: the Kindle bookstore offers more than 850,000 books; the iBookstore sells just 200,000. (Both apps can load the 33,000-plus public-domain books – including classics by Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and many others – from Project Gutenberg).

Readability

One of the big advantages of ebooks compared with the paper kind is that they’re customisable; you can modify the text to suit your needs.

In the Kindle app, you can choose to view black text on a white background, dark brown on sepia, or white on black. The app also offers six font sizes. You get a different mix of text options in iBooks. There isn’t a white on black option; you must choose between black on white or sepia tones. That said, iBooks does give you 11 text sizes to choose from, and you can customise the fonts. (Kindle lets publishers set the font, and you can’t override that setting.) One iBook setting we particularly like is the ability to toggle full-text justification off; the Kindle app offers no such option.

iBooks’ brightness slider actually provides more control than the iPad’s own. If you turn the iPad’s own slider to its darkest setting, the iBooks app’s control can make it darker still.

Although an actual Kindle outshines the iPad for reading outdoors in the sun, the iPad is best for reading in the dark – next to a sleeping spouse, say. In that context, we prefer the Kindle app’s white on black setting, dialled down to the app’s maximum darkness setting.

Interface

The Kindle app lets you know where you are in a book in four ways: by displaying a percentage of the book you’ve read; by the Kindle location (a digital page number that remains constant, regardless of font and screen size); by a horizontal progress bar; and by actual page numbers. The iBooks app focuses on page numbers, too – but those ‘pages’ are strictly virtual: the number at the bottom of the screen will change if you switch to a larger font. iBooks also has a progress bar, and it includes a tiny line of text that says something like ‘six pages left in this chapter’ – a nice indication of how close you are to a good stopping point.

The two apps take strikingly different approaches to design. iBooks attempts to recreate the feeling of a real book, down to the binding. Kindle skips such niceties, and shows just the text, starkly bare. We don’t think it matters much. Once you’re reading a good book, the design should fade into the background. And even though swiping is fun, tapping on the screen’s edge is faster.

There are some downsides to using e-reading apps. In our experience, Kindle is a battery guzzler; turning off WiFi helps. The bigger problem is that we spend more on books than we did before. (Luckily, individual ebooks are generally cheaper than their paper counterparts).