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[Edit: As several people have pointed out, there are kids’ books with audio, available on the iPad as individual apps. So that’s a tie, too.

Edits: See booksnewspaper, and final thoughts sections, below.]

I had a chance to play around with an iPad over the holidays. Here’s a comparison of the iPad and the Nook Color, which I’ve been reading on for about a month (full Nook Color review here). Obviously the iPad does a lot more than reading, but this post is designed to give avid readers an idea of whether a Nook will be enough for them, or an iPad will be worth the extra money.

And the short answer is: the Nook will be enough. It’s a close fight, but the iPad simply doesn’t seem to care enough about reading to win.

[Note: I only had a day and a half with the iPad; if you’re a more experienced iPad user and I got something wrong, let me know.]

Newspapers: iPad wins (for now)

The iPad’s NYTimes app looks more like a real paper, and features big, beautiful pictures and embedded video. Best of all: it’s free (for now). The Times has plans to start charging at some point; once that happens, this will be a much closer race.

The Times app needs an Internet connection to work, where the Nook Color downloads the whole paper so you can read it offline. There’s no archive in the iPad version, only today’s news, and if you want a paper other than the Times, you’re out of luck.

I don’t really care about the layout, to be honest. Some people don’t like the Nook Color’s list-of-articles-style layout, and it could certainly use some navigational help (like a back button). But the iPad layout is basically the same, except for the front page of each section.

I am jealous, however, of the NYTimes app’s multimedia content. I’d like to see the digital edition of the Times include videos, photo essays, and blogs like the iPad version, I’d like to see it download an entire edition to your device like the Nook version. The iPad’s 3G is basically worthless, so you have to read the paper at a WiFi connection.

So: the Nook gives you more papers, and gives you the complete archiveable print versions of them. The iPad only gives you the NYTimes, it needs a WiFi connection and expires too quickly, but it offers a lot of multimedia content. Once price is no longer an issue, the winner of this fight will depend on how you read the paper.

[Edit: People have pointed out that there are other newspaper apps in the iPad store. I searched for a dozen prominent papers and came up empty. The selection is definitely worse on iPad, but I can’t comment on the apps I didn’t try.]

Books: Tie

The iPad and Nook Color are almost identical when it comes to books. Both can bookmark, highlight, and take notes—and both note-taking systems are terrible. Both can change font and font size. The iPad has page-turning animation, the Nook Color has a night-reading mode. The iPad also has a two-page view that’s pretty cool, mostly because it feels more natural on the giant screen.

[Edit: Some have commented that the iPad offers a lot more choices for ereading apps. That’s nice, but I don’t think it changes the equation. It’s difficult to get much better or worse in terms of books, unless you really want some specific feature like page-turning animation. Both devices can do library ebooks. Both take notes. It’s a tie.]

Magazines: Nook Color wins

Getting a magazine on the iPad is a frustrating experience. You have to download the magazine’s app, and then often you must buy each issue individually, which makes it $5 and up, instead of the Nook Color’s $3 per month and down subscription price. That’s not a huge difference for a monthly magazine, but weekly magazine prices really add up. (Obviously, both systems’ prices need to drop to below print subscription rates.)

Then there are size and downloading issues. When I bought an issue of The New Yorker, it was inexplicably more than 100Mb (because of the embedded video in which Jason Schwartzman shows you how to swipe?). To make matters worse, it won’t download in the background, you have to sit there and watch it.

The Zinio app is crucial for iPad magazine readers. It lets you browse a wide selection of magazines, and offers the only subscriptions you’ll find. Weirdly, you have to use a credit card or Paypal to pay, instead of getting routed through your iTunes account.

The Zinio interface is smoother than the Nook Color’s, but it’s simply not as useful. The Nook Color’s Article View, which isolates the text of a story, is much better than Zinio’s similar “Text” view (pictured), because Article View is available on any page of a story, remembers your place, and lets you side-swipe directly to the next article. Zinio-“Text” does none of these things, and the page is wider than is strictly comfortable for reading a magazine article.

All in all, it’s no surprise that iPad magazines are in steep decline. It’s obvious that Apple doesn’t care enough about magazines to organize a system. They care about absolutely everything, so that says a lot.

Comic books: iPad wins

It’s not much of a fight, because the Nook offers no comic books. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s because B&N want to sell comic books through their store, while Apple is happy having an app that does all the legwork. Hopefully a ComiXology app is coming to the Nook Color soon.

Kids’ books: [edit] tie

I couldn’t find any kids’ picture iBooks that featured embedded audiobooks, which is definitely the killer feature of the Nook’s picture books.

[Edit: As several people have pointed out, there are kids’ books with audio, available on the iPad as individual apps. So this is a tie, too.]

Shopping: Nook Color wins

For the most part, these shopping systems are equally crappy. I understand there’s limited screen real estate on the Nook Color, but it’s fairly impossible to browse for books. The iPad, shockingly, is almost as bad. There are “Featured” layouts in each of the genres and categories, layouts that look roughly like the iTunes store. But if you don’t want a featured book, slogging through the “Browse” interface is a chore.

Certainly, iBooks’s curated store is more helpful than the Nook Color’s horrible shopping interface, which constantly tries to hard-sell me romance novels, and never recommends a book I’m remotely interested in. But the Nook wins this race to the bottom because Barnes & Noble has an actual website, and anything you buy or sample there shows up automatically on your device. Also, you can get magazines and newspapers through B&N, instead of through a thousand different channels on the iPad.

There is no iBookstore website, so iReaders are stuck in the slog.

Extras: iPad wins in a landslide

Obviously. But it’s worth mentioning.

Hardware: Shockingly quite even

The iPad is smoother without a doubt, but is it that much faster? I didn’t really notice a difference for just reading. And the iPad glitched and jerked more than the Nook. A caveat: obviously the Nook is comparable only when reading; I’m sure the iPad is faster when doing other things. Reverse caveat: if you’re considering a Nook, you’re not really interested in the other things.

The Nook Color’s screen size is preferable to me. Even magazines, the only medium that requires size, look great on it. Magazines look better on the iPad, but the screen is too big for everything else you’ll read. You might feel differently if you have poor eyesight, but you can adjust the text size of anything.

Final thoughts

  • The iPad’s 3G: a rip-off at half the price. There are a lot of limits, like you can’t download anything over 20Mb through 3G. Plus $25 for 2Gb of bandwidth is a ludicrous price, and, of course, it’s woefully slow. I mean, AT&T can barely handle iPhones rendering mobile webpages, what made them think they could handle full-scale pages for iPad, plus heavy, multimedia-rich apps like the NYTimes? Simply put, a 3G dongle is not worth the extra $130. [Edit: People have defended the 3G with bared fangs, but I smell buyer’s remorse. At best, you’re getting unsatisfying service at exorbitant prices.]
  • The Nook Color revolves around reading. The iPad is about design, and it looks great. But the Nook is about functionality, and it shows, especially in magazine reading. Apple’s hands-off approach to newspapers and magazines really hurts the iPad in those departments. The Nook needs its share of help, too (magazine price reductions, and all kinds of firmware improvements), but it’s at least on the right track.
  • Verdict: I’m still very satisfied with my Nook Color. The iPad has a few advantages, but also a few disadvantages. All in all, the Nook Color is a better device for avid readers, and it’s only half the price to boot.
  • [Edit: This post, of course, has been read as iPad bashing, but that wasn’t my intention. The iPad’s a great device if you want a tablet. The Nook Color holds its own as an ereader, and if that’s all you want, it’s a better fit and half the price. Based on ereading features, it’s about a tie. Settle down, fanpeople.]