iPad 2 vs Kindle: Airplane Usability Test

As I was flying back from Miami last week, I was on a very full second leg flight from Houston to San Diego. I ended up in a center seat on a 737, with two lawyers on either side. (There is probably a joke here somewhere!) The guy to the right of me had a new Kindle with a deluxe case and night light. The guy to my left was reading a paperback book and had an iPhone. I had my trusty new iPad 2 on my lap.

That’s when the comparisons started.

I started up a conversation with the guy with the Kindle. He showed me how the e-ink screen worked and showed me the pop out night light. The case was leather and was about the size of a 6×9 inch book. When I took a look at the unit, the side window of the airplane was open, and the black and white screen was easy to read. It looked like a great alternative to a standard book.

After looking at the Kindle, he asked me about my iPad 2. I showed him how the smart cover worked, and folded it back so it formed a prop for typing. I then showed him a Kindle book and an iBook. He was impressed with the bright screen and the reading layout.

The plane was then ready for takeoff so we had to close our devices. As we reached cruising altitude, the captain announced that we could turn our electronic devices back on. I pulled down the tray table in front of me and folded the smart cover back. I started on a blog post with the onscreen keyboard. The sun was really bright coming in the side window, so the young guy to my left closed the port hole window. This is when the comparison really got interesting.

I looked over at the guy with the Kindle and his screen had turned to a grey mush. It was very hard to read from where I was sitting. What looked great in the sun was now much harder on the eyes. He held the Kindle with one hand on his tray table and tried to get comfortable reading it. He then did something very interesting. He put the Kindle flat on the tray table and then leaned forward and propped his head up with his left hand on the tray table. He stayed this way for quite a while.

I finished my blog post up, and then started reading an iBook. The smart cover propped the iPad up at a great angle for reading and it worked well for using a finger swipe to turn pages. While I was comfortably back in my seat, the guy with the Kindle was scrunched forward. While he kept reading, I loaded up Angry Birds and started playing. He looked over and asked about the game. I showed him how it worked. He said that his Kindle was just for reading, so he leaned forward and started a new chapter.

After a few new levels of Angry Birds Rio, I turned the iPad over and used the smart cover in easel mode to watch a movie. I clicked in my headphone and enjoyed a stored TV show. Both of the guys beside me were watching the show for a while and then went back to their activities.

The young guy by the window pulled out his iPhone and started playing Angry Birds on it. He quipped that the game play was much better on the iPad than the phone since everything was larger. He then went back to reading his book.

As the flight started to descend, we had to turn everything off again. The guy with the book now had the advantage, and he was able to finish up a chapter on the way down.

Overall, my impression was that the iPad was the more usable and comfortable device to use on a plane. The screen was easy to read, the smart cover made it easy to type and the easel function made it easy to watch movies. Having a paper book had it’s advantages as it was usable the whole flight. The Kindle seemed great at first, but the subdued light of the plane and a flat case made for an uncomfortable reading experience.

The advantage of both the iPad and Kindle is they go through security well. Compared to a standard laptop, which requires that you remove it from it’s case, these smaller devices are much more convenient. You can easily stow them on a standard carry-on.

Bottom line... If you want to get work done on a plane with a minimum of hassle and also have a plethora of entertainment options, the iPad 2 is for you. If you want the simplicity of a book, bring along the real thing. The Kindle seems best for good lighting conditions or reading by a window seat. If you have specific PC programs you need to use, you’ll need to drag the laptop along.

Question: Which electronic device do you prefer on a plane?


  1. says

    While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to use my nookcolor on an airplane, I do use it on the commuter train, at lunch, and just before bed. I have even attempted to use it for my Bible reading while in church… that didn’t go so well due to the lack of organization in the version of the nookbook I had downloaded.
    While the nookcolor is a little heavier than most paperbacks, I can only assume this is due to the touchscreen, but the adjustable brightness of the screen is handy.
    Barnes & Noble is completely in charge of the apps allowed for the eReader Tablet, which came with Sudoku, Checkers, Chess, Crosswords, and Pandora. My hope is that this year they will release their own version of an App store once they release the nookcolor approved version of the Android OS that supports flash.
    I love my nookcolor and utilize it for reading, playing games, and surfing the web (when I have WiFi access). Its ability to play music and videos is handy when I’m reading and don’t want to be bothered by the loud-talkers next to me. The music feature is also nice when I am reading my novels (in either Word or PDF) and making edits as I go. One day – hopefully – they will beef up this ‘note-taking’ feature so that I can actually write my books. Otherwise, I will need to get myself a netbook….

    • says

      Hi Nona, the Nook presents an interesting solution. Half Kindle, half iPad. It has a color backlit screen, access to a whole host of books and soon it may be upgraded to full tablet status. With the upcoming OS upgrade, this might make it the best Android tablet on the market. Certainly the best one for the price.

  2. Rob says

    One device costs more than 3x the other! $140 vs $499, right?

    I’m trying to think of a situation where this is a realist/fair fight.
    Homes? Burgers? Vacuums? Computers? Nope!
    This is a silly post. The nook / kindle comparison is closer to realistic, start there

    • John Richardson says

      Actually I don’t think price has much to do with it. I would argue that the iPad is a much better deal than the other two. The average American reads 5 to 6 books per year at an average price of $8.00 for mass market fiction. It would take years for the Kindle to pay for itself, since it is only a book reader. In fact if you just want to read books, why not go to the library? The nook at it’s new lower price of $149 is mainly a book reader at this point but it does have a few games and a basic web browser so it adds usability. The iPad on the other hand, plays movies, surfs the web, gets email, plays music, allows you to read all types of e-books including Kindle versions, has thousands of games etc etc. At $499, that seems like a bargain.

      • Rob Bruce says

        Read books on your smart phone then. You probably have one already, it’s always in your pocket and you don’t have to buy something else.

        The readability of the kindle screen alone puts it on a class by itself: nothing compared to ePaper in direct sunlight and for battery life.

        If you just want an excuse to get an iPad, blame Angry Birds. Used paper books are cheap and can be read during take off and landing, beating anything electronic.

  3. hiya says

    well i am 13 yrs old and umm i want the ipad for christmas but i also want the kindle fire. the ipad cost more money but has more quality the kindle fire is cheaper so yea. and im going on a plane in febraury and april so i need something to do wile im on the plane rides ya no… well anyways dats the problem i have and if u wanna y im going on two plane flights its for my church choir were starting to become famous buit we dnt really hav a name yet but i dnt think u wuld know about us cuz were nigerian so yea bye and thanks for responding :)

  4. albert says

    I have an hp Touchpad with ics on it. I had the same scenario with someone on the plane last December. For some reason, the kindle just doesn’t quite do the job outside your typical room whether it be at work or at home. If anywhere else, the view will not work. I really like the iPad (any version) but I’m also glad I have my Touchpad which works well.

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