Since Amazon announced its Kindle platform back in 2007, I have read books on a variety of different devices. I've owned and used two different Kindle devices and experimented with the rest. I've read on my smartphones, iPad, laptop, and traditional paper books. There are great things about each, but there are also aspects of all of them that drive me crazy.
When the new Nexus 7 was announced last month, it seemed like the type of device I was waiting for: powerful, light, and affordable. Most importantly, it included a screen that would be easy on the eyes.
The Problem with the Kindle
Up until now, I've mostly used Kindles for long form reading. Their e-ink screens are fantastic,the experience is seamless when reading Amazon content , and they're light and easy to hold as a small paperback. The problem is, while I love reading, a lot of the content I was interested in, including blogs, the Bible, online news, and magazines, was difficult or impossible to access on a traditional Kindle. In addition, my Kindle often wasn't able to cope with the diagrams and code snippets common in the more technical books I read.
As a result, my Kindle often ended up neglected, and I used my iPhone or laptop instead. Kindles are fantastic reading hardware, but their lack of integration with non Amazon store content cripples their usefulness. I think Amazon's best play here would be to make a deal with a service like Pocket or Instapaper 1 for deep integration that goes beyond the almost unusable "send document to Kindle" integration that Instapaper currently provides2. That would go a long way to making it a viable multi-purpose reading device.
As for the Kindle Fire line, they serve as a step in the right direction, but have consistently been panned for laggy performance and an interface that is effectively a store front. They still might be a valid contender though, except for the growth of other options that don't share those problems.
Why not an iPad?
The other serious contender for the title of "best reading device" is the iPad. Since it first came out in 2010, it has quickly become the most popular choice for multimedia consumption on a midsize (7-11 inch) screen. It has arguably the best hardware, and inarguably the best selection of third party apps and integrations. The question then becomes, "Which iPad?"
The "original iPad" line, now on its fourth generation, boasts a large ten inch screen- one of the nicest screens you can find on a mobile device. It also hosts three and a half years-worth of apps designed specifically for the iPad's size and form. It is by almost all accounts the best multipurpose tablet that money can buy. As a reading device, though, it leaves much to be desired. At 1.44 lbs, it's heavy and awkward to hold in one hand. It's also expensive: $200-$400 greater than other reading devices. These factors can easily be overlooked relative to the versatility and utility of the iPad as a productivity and media-consumption device, but they make it difficult to recommend as a pure reader.
The iPad mini, on the other hand, is almost the perfect shape and size for a reader. It is the lightest high-end tablet on the market, and also feels like much more of a premium device than the Nexus or the Kindle when you hold one in your hand. It comes at a reasonable cost ($170 less than the "regular" iPad), and like the Retina iPad, it comes with the full support of the Apple ecosystem. The iPad mini is its older sibling's only truly valid competitor for "best multipurpose tablet", and a completely valid choice as a reading device at that.
On the other hand, the iPad mini also has a screen that is completely blown away by all of its competitors. Compared to any of the other devices mentioned here, its text looks pixelated and less crisp, as you can see in this comparison from Ars Technica's Nexus 7 review.
For many uses this is not a big deal, but when reading longform text, I find that the display resolution really makes a difference in how long I'm able to read comfortably. When I looked at the Mini in my local Apple store, iBooks' text was significantly less crisp than it was on the other devices. Combined with the extra cost relative to a Kindle or Nexus 7, it becomes difficult to justify recommending an iPad Mini as a reading-focused device.
Enter the Nexus 7
The new Nexus 7 manages to avoid many of the tradeoffs hindering the other devices. It has a top of the line screen at a price point directly in between the Kindle Paperwhite and the iPad Mini. It also remains easy to hold, with a smaller (though slightly heavier) frame than the Mini. And since it is a full Android tablet, it comes equipped with a real web browser and integrations with all the most prominent reading services 3. That's the Nexus 7's promise, but is it able to live up to it?
A beautiful screen
The first thing you notice when you see a Nexus 7 is the screen. It's a premium component set inside an otherwise solid but unremarkable slab. The icons on the home screen are crisp and detailed, and the text is clear. It's a screen that practically begs you to read.
The only downside of the screen is that not every device has one yet. As a result, web sites and non-optimized apps can appear blurry and pixelated. The images and toolbars in my preferred Bible app, for instance, appear out of focus, although the text itself is still crisp and readable. This is the price of progress though, and something that Apple users have had to deal with each time a device has transitioned to Retina. Android's fragmentation will make the transition slower, but its a problem that will be mitigated over time as more apps are targeted at newer devices with high resolutions.
Easy to hold
When I bought the Nexus 7, I was nervous about how the device would feel. Unlike iPads, which you can touch and handle in Apple stores, it's difficult to know how a Google product will feel in your hands before you buy one. My local Best Buy had a single test unit, and it was anchored to the display table with a 6" plastic cord that weighed about as much as the device itself 4. I couldn't find any other way to actually touch a Nexus 7 without purchasing, so I decided to purchase one before I went on a vacation and give it a week to prove itself.
In the end I was satisfied, if not quite delighted, by the devices feel. It feels sturdy in the hands, and definitely falls into the "book" size range. On the other hand, the Nexus 7 is both smaller and heavier than an iPad mini, giving it some unwanted heft. This seems like an unavoidable consequences of cramming a Retina-class screen into a 7" tablet while maintaining reasonable battery life. But it does mean that it can't match the paperback feel of the Kindle or the "pleasant to hold" sensation of the iPad Mini. The Nexus 7 makes you think a bit more about it than those two devices, which is probably the biggest knock on it as a reader. It's not too heavy to hold in one hand, but it may feel a bit awkward doing so. I usually end up using two hands if I'm sitting down to read, but will hold it with one hand if I'm carrying it around.
What about the apps?
The app selection was my second biggest concern when considering the Nexus 7. As a previous owner of one of the original Windows Phones, I know what it's like to work with a platform that doesn't get full support from developers. If you love the OS you can still have a good experience, but your choices will be limited and you may not be able to make some things work. Android tablets in 2013 aren't quite where Windows Phone was in 2010, but there is a big drop in the quality and consistency of tablet apps from the iPad to an Android tablet. When it comes to reading, however, this seems to be a manageable issue.
Android has high quality tablet apps for book reading, RSS, and Read-It-Later services. The Kindle app is solid, though it's missing some features from the iOS app like the X-ray option and the ability to change fonts. Press is as good as any RSS client I've tried on iOS or the desktop. Instapaper is surprisingly nice on Android, given Marco Arment's well documented skepticism toward Android. There are other solid options for those using other services, including apps for Pocket, Nook, and Feedly.
Overall I've been incredibly pleased with the Nexus 7 so far. I think it makes the right tradeoffs for a reading device. It adds a little extra heft in exchange for a brilliant screen at an affordable cost, in a package that is still smaller than many paperbacks. It might not please somebody looking for a multipurpose media tablet: it's still missing popular iOS apps like Amazon Instant Video and Tweetbot5 (and even when apps do exist they're often not optimized for tablets). But if you don't need that functionality, there is a lot here to love. As a multi-source reading device, the Nexus 7 is king.
Update June 2014: After almost a year with the Nexus 7, I stand by my analysis of the tradeoffs involved with different devices. But I've found that the ones the Nexus 7 make bother me more than I expected. It's ended up feeling like an impractical device for me. Because it's battery life doesn't match something like the kindle, I have to worry about charging it. But because it doesn't have the general utility of the iPad (or more importantly my iPhone), I end up neglecting it. The lack of a decent twitter app, and the lack of polish on most non-Google apps makes it a tough sell when faced with the option of doing something on the Nexus vs doing it on my phone or laptop. I still think the Nexus 7 is a great device. But it has not met my needs as well as I expected
Actually, an Amazon acquisition seems like the perfect out for Pocket, a popular service that completely lacks a business model. ↩
To be clear, it's unusable because Amazon makes it unusable. There is no way (as far as I can tell) to bulk-delete documents, or delete a document from the device after you finish it. Instead, you have to go to Amazon.com later and delete documents one at a time. It's left my Kindle library littered with old Instapaper articles that I have no interest in reading again. ↩
In my case that's Kindle, Instapaper, Feedbin and Pinboard, but it equally supports Nook, Pocket, Feedly, Delicious and most other popular services. Of course if all your books are in iBooks then you probably haven't even made it this far. ↩
Best Buy seems to go out of its way to cater to people who don't actually care if their devices are nice. They've gotten a little better with some of their featured electronic displays. There was a very nice "touch and play" section for Samsung devices. But it always seems like half the display devices are non-functional, and they're actively trying to push Windows machines with reasonable specs, cheap plastic casing and trackpads you have to hit with a hammer to get a response. ↩
Obviously there are plenty of twitter apps on Android, but I haven't been able to find one that is anywhere near as nice to use as Tweetbot. That's obviously a compliment to Tweetbot's development team, though it does seem to me that there may be some API limits that are hurting the Android apps. Otherwise, I can't understand why they seem to universally require 2 taps to follow a link. ↩