What the iPad could do for ebooks

Q. Why would I buy a Kindle that only does one thing, rather than an iPad that does lots?

All the current crop of ebook readers – from Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble and more – are really only good at one thing: reading books. It may seem obvious, but while some will offer a few other features, it's reading books that they excel at; their relatively small, relatively low-res greyscale screens aren't even that good at showing pages from newspapers or magazines.

They are, however, phenomenally good for reading books. It's partly because of their E Ink screens and epic battery life, but it's also refreshing to have a device on which you're not constantly tempted to check in with your email or Twitter stream.

That said, a dedicated device is an expensive luxury, and given that, for example, Amazon has made an app to let you read the ebooks it sells on the iPhone (we'd be astonished if it didn't have an iPad-native version soon), your choices about where you read your electronic books may be more flexible than you had imagined.

Q. What is E Ink?

E Ink, the display technology at the heart of all mainstream dedicated ebook readers, is very different to traditional backlit TFTs that we're used to.

In a TFT, a pixel is formed by shining a light through a dynamic polarising membrane that lets certain light through. In order to see the image properly, it needs that backlight; great for reading in the dark, but can be both tiring on the eyes, and requires constant power to maintain an image.

Each pixel of an E Ink display, however, is a tiny transparent capsule filled with charged white and black particles. To display an image, a positive or negative charge is applied to each capsule, causing the white or black particles to be pushed to the top, making them visible to the viewer.

Not only does the display look like paper but it requires no power to maintain an image, thanks to that physical state change that moved the particles permanently into place. E Ink is kind to the eye, but the iPad uses a plain ol' TFT.

Q. Where can I get ebooks from?

As well as public domain repositories for out-of-copyright books, such as the popular www.gutenberg.org, each ebook system has its own store. The Kindle has Amazon, you can buy books for Sony's range from Waterstones, owners of the Nook will shop from Barnes & Noble and so on.

Apple is launching its own shop for its iBooks app, the iBookstore. Saying that, for now it's launching it in the States only – there's no word on international launches yet. Despite everyone (except Amazon) betting on the EPUB format, don't expect to load books from one store onto another device, however.

Q. Are ebooks cheaper than normal books?

Currently, there's little difference compared to mass-market paperbacks, though ebooks are often cheaper than hardbacks, and some stores will promote cheap prices for books currently in bestseller lists.

Publishers are trying hard not to let their authors' work get devalued in the same way as has perhaps happened with music, but we are getting a sense of déjà vu with the competing formats, pricing concerns and conservative position the industry is taking.

Q. How can I read ebooks on my Mac or iPhone?

There are loads of apps for both. The eReader platform has apps for both, the Kindle app is out for the iPhone and coming soon to the Mac. And there are many other apps for iPhone (such as Classics, Stanza, Eucalyptus and more) that let you easily read out-of-copyright works.

Q. Are ebooks the future?

It's hard to imagine a future in which works, already largely produced digitally, aren't consumed digitally as well, but it's as silly to think that paper books will be made obsolete by the iPad and the Kindle (compare it to the notion of having your meals in pill form…).

What's going to be interesting, however, is seeing authors and publishers play with the notion of a narrative, and exploiting the non-linear, connected nature of devices such as the iPad. The concept of the 'book' may change.

Q. Can I read MacFormat magazine on the iPad?

Subscribers can download each issue as a PDF from www.macformat.co.uk/subscriber, and those can be loaded onto an iPhone OS device such as the iPad using ReaddleDocs, GoodReader or another third-party viewer app.