Rock, paper scissors: Should I get a Kindle, iPad or MacBook?

Well, we’ve been Amazon Kindle owners for almost four years now at our house, we’ve had Apple’s iPad for almost a year and we’ve had Mac laptops since too long ago to remember. So we’re getting asked a lot now: Should I buy an iPad or a Kindle? Can I use an iPad instead of a laptop? Do I need a computer to use my Kindle? With all three products hot right now, the answer is sort of like the old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each has different strengths and weaknesses not to mention very different prices. Let’s review some of the basic strengths of each, starting with the cheapest.

Amazon Kindle  (3rd generation)

$139 with wifi or $189 with free mobile wireless for life

You are a reader. You always have at least one book on hand, sometimes several. When you finish a book, you simply move on to the next. The Kindle has been carefully honed to meet your needs.

You use it to read in any place you would read a book in the way you would read a book: hold it in one hand, read outside, read inside. There is no backlighting, so if you are in bed at night, you need a lamp. The black and white screen is incredibly easy to read and easy on your eyes — you will never feel the eye fatigue you get from staring at a computer screen all day. And when your eyes are already tired after that long work day, you can adjust the size of the Kindle’s type on the fly.

You want a bring it and forget it device. The Kindle fits in a purse or jacket pocket, weighs practically nothing, the battery lasts for weeks on end. You never need to sync it to a computer ever. Because the wireless connection is built-in and free (it runs on Sprint’s network but you don’t need to know that) you can access the bookstore anywhere, anytime. You can also grab any ebook you’ve ever bought any time from your personal online library maintained by Amazon. Any ebook you buy can also be read on other Kindles you own or on special apps available for most smart phones and computers — or the iPad.

The Kindle has a primitive web browser that works on the free wireless connection. It may be perfect for catching up on news, blogs or other text content but no video or complex stuff at all. There is also a mini-sized built-in keyboard. It’s handy for searching for ebooks in the store, taking a few notes but not much more. Your fingers would cramp and die trying to write the great American ebook novel on this thing.

New versions of the Kindle have historically come out around the holidays so you’re safe buying one now.

Apple iPad 2

$499-$699 with wifi, $629-$829 with mobile wireless (plus monthly contract)

You want to enjoy digital entertainment like music, movies and web sites when you’re not sitting at your desk. The iPad loves to be in the family room, the living room, on the train, at the coffee shop. Its crisp full-color screen, much larger than the Kindles’s and fully back lit,  is great if you like watching a lot of video. It also works as an ebook reader with apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks (though there is some danger Apple is going to banish its competitors later this year). The back lighting lets you read in bed with no lamp, a feature much appreciated by sleepy spouses.

The iPad is perfect when you need to pull it out quickly and use it for 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there — waiting at the doctor’s office or to board a plane, say. There is no boot-up time, it’s instantly on and, with the mobile wireless models, connected immediately almost anywhere. Great for taking the train to work, waiting at the doctor’s office, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

There is a full strength web browser built in. It’s absolutely great at almost everything but won’t play Flash content (more on that below). You will pay extra, considerably extra, over a Kindle for the iPad models with a mobile wireless connection. You can choose AT&T or Verizon but monthly plans are going to add several hundred dollars a year at least to your total cost of ownership. AT&T’s plans start at $15/month and Verizon’s at $20/month. One way to avoid the bill is to buy the wifi-only model and use your smart phone’s tethering capability or a mobile hotspot like the Verizon mifi.

The iPad can be used like a computer with its on-screen keyboard but it’s best for writing short notes or emails. There is no feeling of physical feedback from pressing each key on screen as there is with a normal keyboard, of course.

The iPad is great with web-based email services like Google’s gMail or Apple’s MobileMe. The built-in iPad email app for old-fashioned email accounts where you download all your mail, however, remains rather limited. Compared to Apple’s desktop email, the iPad version lacks basic features like spam filtering and folders.

The iPad is a great device to review or present large documents, spreadsheets or PDFs. It’s not bad for typing documents but has only limited formatting options, which can cause huge problems if you are planning to move files back and forth with a PC. And it is pretty darn horrible for spreadsheets, which cry out for a mouse and full keyboard.

The iPad is at its best showing off personal photos and home movies to friends, offering amazing slide shows anywhere you happen to be. I mean really great. The feeling of pulling up photos, zooming in and out and flicking around your albums all with your fingers in comtrol is constant fun. The iPad is less great for organizing or editing photos but you can do that on your computer and sync them over.

The iPad is part of Apple’s vast and growing iOS app ecosystem. There are thousands of great games and zillions more apps to do all sorts of things, guide you through the Louvre, track your eBay bidding, download digital comic books and on and on.

We have found that the iPad is the perfect second computer if you already have a computer for work. Get your personal life off your company’s computer (really, you should!). The iPad is light enough that you can travel with both. It now has a built in camera so you can do video chatting on the go, too.

The iPad is also kid-proof and there are lots of kid friendly games. It’s like letting the kids play in a sandbox — they can’t mess it up the way they inevitably seem to mess up full-powered computers.

There are a few weaknesses versus the Kindle or the MacBook Air. The iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand so it doesn’t work if you’re standing up on the subway or trying to use it in a cramped space where the Kindle is great. Also unlike the Kindle, the iPad does want to be synced to a computer. That’s the only way to back up your stuff and the only sane way to re-arrange your app icons if you have more than a few. And storage space can easily get tight, requiring that you sync big files like movies or TV shows back and forth with your computer.

The battery lasts for a day, maybe even for two, but then needs to be recharged. And, without getting too deep in a matter of some controversy, the iPad is not compatible with Adobe Flash so there are web sites that you cannot see (like those for some high-end restaurants and hotels) and you cannot view flash videos or play flash games (hello Club Penguin). And Apple does not let you add your own favorite web browser to your iPad.

The updated iPad 2 came out almost a year after the first iPad and while there are some vague rumors of an update in the fall, again I think it’s a pretty safe time to buy now.

The 11″ MacBook Air

$999-$1299

Another contender in the mobile and useful computing category is Apple’s new MacBook Air with an 11″ screen. It is about the same size as an iPad though almost twice as heavy (2.3 lb versus 1.3 lb).

The MacBook Air is one of the most powerful and capable laptops in the history of the category we used to call ultraportable. It has a full-size keyboard and is ready for serious writing, document creation, photo editing, pretty much any task you want to throw at a regular computer, all in a super-portable package. Load up a full copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Garageband and get to work. Spreadsheet jockeys will be happy with the trackpad. You can easily do serious emailing using Apple’s email or whatever software you like.

The web browser on the MacBook Air is a full-powered browser capable of displaying, with the correct plug-in, all flash-based web sites. You can also choose to add any browser you prefer like Firefox of Chrome.

But it’s also small enough to make for a fine movie player on the couch or in bed. You can run the Kindle ereader app for Mac and use it as an ereader, too.

Battery life is reported at 5 hours. There are no built in mobile wireless options but it’s easy enough to get a mobile wifi hotspot like Sprint’s Overdrive or Verizon’s Mifi for on-the-go connectivity.

MacBook Airs have gone a long time between updgrades so even though the current model came out almost six months ago, I’d also put this in the safe to buy now category.

Rock, paper, scissors:

As you may have gleaned from the above discussion, there is plenty of overlap in the uses and capabilities of these three great gadgets but also some major gaps for each. The Kindle may be the “paper” covering the iPad “rock” if you want to read on the subway, but that same iPad “rock” may break the Macbook “scissors” if you want to watch YouTube videos instead. Hence, if you have the budget, you might be well-served with more than one or even all three. And remember, a family with kids that owns an iPad is a family shopping for a second iPad. And a family with kids and two iPads is a family shopping for…well, you get the point.

Additional links of interest:

CNet’s Brooke Crothers has a good piece looking at an iPad2 versus the Macbook Air for all his mobile computing needs.