The internet has long been the battleground for technology holy wars: UNIX v. Windows, Mac v. PC, etc. I have been surprised, however, by how many conversations I've seen recently concerning a new technology conflict: which is better, Kindle or iPad? (Wired even questioned, tongue very much in cheek, whether this reflects an ideological divide on the Supreme Court.) In particular, I was taken aback by the intensity shown by partisans on both sides when a friend wrote a query on Facebook asking if she should buy a Kindle.
I'm not certain that the question makes much sense in the first place: these are two different technologies for very different purposes. But for use on a long-term trip like this one, I'd recommend the Kindle. There's absolutely no difference in the availability of books, since Amazon will quite happily sell their Kindle content to the iPad's app. Yet the Kindle has a number of distinct advantages for a long-term traveler.
Price: Here, Apple is its own worst enemy. As of this writing, a wifi-only iPad costs $499. A Kindle with 3G and wifi costs $189, and a 32GB iPod touch $299. So the question isn't really "which device is better?" but "does the iPad do anything that a Kindle, plus another $300 device, doesn't do?" We've been traveling with an iPhone and Kindle, and I'd have to say that the answer is no.
- Free 3G: While wifi has become more and more common, it's far from ubiquitous. In New Zealand and Australia, restaurants and hotels tend to hit customers with a wifi surcharge, and using a Kindle to check email will save a few bucks. On a long-term trip, that might add up to pay for the cost of the device. Likewise, there is no way to connect to an 802.11 signal while hurtling down a New Delhi freeway with a driver who has "forgotten" where your hotel is, despite having assured you that he knew the place when you got on board. In these situations, the Kindle's slow, low-tech web browser becomes a lifesaver. (True, the 3G-enabled iPad will give you faster web access in such situations, but even the Salle Rovers would have blanched at AT&T's international roaming charges.)
- Visibility: Given its color screen and better resolution, the iPad is probably an all-around better device, but for travel I think the Kindle has an edge because it is not backlit. Wandering around the blisteringly bright ruins of Volubilis, we had absolutely no trouble reading the e-ink of Lonely Planet Morocco. In contrast, I had a hard time reading the iPad even under the flourescent lamps in Sydney's airport. (The iPhone suffers from a similar flaw. Whenever I want to use it as a map, I have to find some shady spot, or hide it in my hands.)
- Invisibility: Given Apple's marketing expertise, it's no surprise that the iPad gets noticed. Everyone knows what the iPad looks like, and has a pretty good idea of its price tag. This is great for the Apple brand, but bad for tourists in far-flung countries who don't want to wave around a device known to cost at least a week's worth of the local average income. While one can legitimately worry about theft of any piece of electronics, the iPad's notoriety makes it particularly problematic, especially since an iPad's resale value far outstrips that of a cheap laptop. The Kindle, on the other hand, doesn't look much different from a bound paper notebook when it's in a cover, and hasn't attracted much of a second glance on the road.
The iPad has its strong points: a large screen, fast processor for video, and access to all the goodies in the iOS app store. Likewise, it handles images far better than the Kindle, which can make using the maps in a guidebook much less of a trial.
But its less expensive cousin, the iPod Touch, matches the iPad in everything except screen real estate. And the iPad weighs more than the Kindle and Touch put together. So while I admit to a bit of gadget lust (and might put an iPad into my plans, budget willing, once we return), I don't think I'd recommend it for the long-term flashpacker.