I am a lucky woman. This I realize. I got a Kindle 2 last year for Christmas. Then when the iPad became available later in the year, I bought one of those because I am a Mac junkie. Then at the recent She's Connected conference in Toronto, I was lucky enough to receive a free Kobo reader from the kind folks at Kobo. I've now gotten the chance to use all three. So what do I prefer to use for reading? Read on, and I'll tell you.
First, a couple of notes. The Kindle 2 is no longer available for purchase and has been replaced by the Kindle 3. I considered writing the review solely on my experience with the Kindle 2, but that wouldn't be useful, given that you can't buy it anymore. So I have referred to my experiences with the Kindle 2, and have also noted any significant differences to be expected with the Kindle 3.
Secondly, the iPad is not an e-reader. It is a tablet computer and has much more broad functionality than either of the e-readers. However, I decided to include it for comparison because in discussions with pretty much everyone, the iPad inevitably comes up as an option for people looking for an e-reader.
So, here's a handy little chart that tells you some of the vital statistics for the three devices such as weight, capacity, and phone numbers.
Kobo, Amazon, and Apple. If something's really off, I probably typo'd it. Sorry.
So as you can see above, the Kobo and Kindle are quite similar size-wise and visual-experience-wise. Both have a 6" screen with E Ink display (which is totally cool if you've never seen it) and are so close in weight for the difference to be completely negligible in a practical sense. The iPad is much larger and heavier.
Once you have books loaded on the device, all devices let you go through your list to select a book to read. Navigation on the iPad is via the touchscreen. The Kindle 2 has a little "joystick" button that allows you to navigate up and down (this is also used for various other things such as highlighting). The Kobo has a nice big navigation pad that allows you to carry out all the scrolling and selecting functions with a push of your thumb.
The display of the loaded books on the Kobo is much nicer than that on the Kindle. The Kobo gives you a list that shows you the book cover as you scroll through, and also tells you how far you've read in the book. The Kindle simply lists the books you've loaded. The iPad is at the mercy of the app you're using to read books, but in general the display is much nicer.
Once you load the book, each device allows you to change the settings of the display such as font sizes. The iPad's touchscreen gives you the most versatility for changing these settings. The Kobo allows you to increase or decrease the font size using the same navigation pad it uses for page turning - simply push the pad up or down.
I actually cannot find the option for increasing or decreasing font sizes on the Kindle 2. Anyone?
The page turning speed on the iPad is the quickest of all three devices. The Kobo and Kindle 2 are virtually equal in their page turning times. The Kindle 3 is apparently quicker.
Book Shopping on the Device
The iPad has the advantage here, because you can shop for e-books however you want. There's a Kindle app giving you access to the Kindle store, a Kobo app giving you access to the Kobo store, an iBooks app giving you access to the Apple iBooks store, plus who knows how many other reading apps there might be in the app store. The Kobo and Kindle can only shop via their native shops.
However, the layout and display of the store is much nicer on the Kobo than the Kindle, very similar to the layout of the "I'm Reading" screen.
If you decide to shop on your computer and sync your items, you can shop for Kindle books on Amazon.com, which will then wirelessly download themselves to your Kindle. I tend to find the Amazon.com site frustrating, especially as a Canadian since it keeps asking for different logins for different sites. For the Kobo, you can download a clean, intuitive desktop application which is far more pleasant to the eye than the crowded Amazon pages.
Display and Contrast
The iPad, being backlit, has the best contrast of all devices. The Kobo and Kindle, both being E Ink, are not pure white background with pure black text. Rather, the background is light gray, with text that appears to be darker grayscale, but not pure black. Between the Kobo and the Kindle 2, the Kobo's display has better contrast. The background seems lighter than the display on the Kindle, which gives it better readability. (The Kindle 3 has reportedly improved contrast over the Kindle 2.)
The iPad comes with wireless connectivity, with optional 3G.
The Kindle comes with its built-in Whispernet technology, which is free and 3G based. Not entirely certain why they added wireless, but they did. It's always on unless you turn it off or you run low on battery, when it will turn itself off to preserve power.
The Kobo comes with wireless access, which you annoyingly have to manually connect every time you want to use it. It's annoying. (Yes, I repeated that. It's annoying enough that I said it twice.)
The iPad seems to run for days on a charge, especially if you're only reading books. It's really fantastic in that respect.
The Kindle, in my experience, will last several days on a charge.
The Kobo seems to run dry within 2-3 days.
The iPad can do anything at all. I think it could actually drive a car. I bet there's an app for that. As far as the eReader apps go, you can view in portrait or landscape, change font sizes and typefaces, the whole nine yards.
The Kindle, while it cannot drive cars, still can do a lot. It has portrait or landscape views, allows you to easily highlight text, has many font sizes (although only one choice of typeface, as far as I can tell), has a text-to-speech program that sounds like Stephen Hawking so has limited practical usefulness, and even has a web browser. The Kindle is really trying to straddle both worlds between eReader and tablet laptop.
The Kobo pretty much allows you to load and read books. That's its raison d'etre.
Summary and Conclusion
It's no contest: the iPad is the most pleasant reading experience for the eyes. It's also quickest and is most feature-rich. However, its weight and size mean that it isn't an ideal, versatile, go-anywhere eReader. There are places where it's just not comfortable - laying in bed being a big one. And if you can't use an eReader comfortably in bed, it's no good for me. So fundamentally, if all you want is an eReader, the iPad is a bad choice. There are plenty of other fabulous reasons to get an iPad, don't worry, but if it's just an eReader you're looking for, it's far more expensive and far less versatile in terms of being able to comfortably read wherever you want to read.
So that leaves the battle between the Kindle and Kobo. The Kindle is far more feature-rich and tries to straddle the gap between e-reader and tablet computer, with a certain amount of success. The Kobo doesn't try to be anything other than it is: a comfortable, easy-to-use eReader.
So ultimately, which one do I take to bed at night?
I've taken the Kobo. Every time.
The feeling of the device in my hands. The quilted back on the Kobo makes it feel more comfortable and less industrial. No, it doesn't feel like a book, but it does feel softer, not like a metal back. My Kindle 2 has a metal back, so holding it is less comfortable.
Secondly, the page turning functionality. The Kobo navigation button is just easier to use. I don't really have to shift my thumb far at all to go page forward, page back, or increase or reduce font sizes. It's easier for me.
However, I have the luxury of choice. If there's something I can't do or read on my Kobo, I can just pick up my Kindle. And for that reason, the Kindle has the edge - because it does things and loads publications that the Kobo can't yet. My heart is absolutely with the scrappy little Kobo - but my head, right now, is with the Kindle. I'm excited to see what the Kobo will do to add features and publications within the next 6-12 months to make this a real battle.