Should You Buy a Kindle or Just Use the Free App?

It seems like just about everyone has an e-reader these days — and almost everyone who has one has a Kindle. But do you really need a Kindle when you can just use the Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet?

Could you save yourself the $80-$290 (not a typo!) that it would cost you to buy a new e-reader by just using the app? Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both options to help you decide once and for all.

Buying a Kindle: Pros

There are a lot of reasons why buying a Kindle might appeal to you. The most obvious, of course, is that you can carry a nearly unlimited amount of books around in your pocket. All of the current Kindle models come with 4 GB of storage space, and with even large books often coming in under 1 MB of space (Moby Dick, one of the longest books I’ve ever read, is a scant 2.4 MB), that’s an absolutely huge number of books you can take with you.


And the Kindle is, in fact, very small. My own Kindle Voyage measures 6.4″ x 4.5″ x 0.3″, making it easy to literally stash it in my back pocket if I want to take it somewhere. And at 6.3 oz., I hardly even notice it in there. The new Kindle Oasis only weighs 4.6 oz. without the cover, which is astonishingly light when you hold it in your hand. The Kindle absolutely cannot be beat on form factor.

The fact that the Kindle isn’t backlit is another huge plus: looking at backlit screens, like your phone or your iPad, might make it harder to sleep at night, and it’s harder on your eyes over long periods of time. The e-ink screen and built-in LEDs of the Kindle provide soft lighting that’s very easy on your eyes without making it hard to read at night. The Voyage and the Oasis even have adaptive light sensors to automatically adjust to your current lighting. And the e-ink is surprisingly clear, especially on the higher-end models.

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One of my personal favorite features of the Kindle Voyage and Oasis is the presence of page-turning buttons on the bezel of the reader. It sounds ridiculous, but if you read through 100 pages of a novel, your thumb will get tired moving from the side of the device to hit the touchscreen and turn the page. The base model Kindle and the Paperwhite are still touchscreen-only, but the other two models pack this fantastically nice feature.

Direct access to the Kindle store is also a great feature of owning a Kindle; you can open up the store from your device, browse books, and download them immediately. If you have a 3G-enabled Kindle, you can do this from anywhere you can get cell reception. This is great if you’re stuck at an airport or somewhere else where you might have to pay for Wi-Fi when you really want a new book.

Buying a Kindle: Cons

With all of those benefits, it’s going to be hard to find enough drawbacks to dissuade you from buying a Kindle, but there’s definitely one con that’s worth mentioning: price. Kindles aren’t cheap, especially if you want any extra features. The base model is $80, which seems pretty reasonable, but you can’t get 3G, there are no page-turn buttons or lights, and the screen resolution is just over half that of the other models.


The Paperwhite gets you LEDs and the option of 3G, but you’re looking at a jump up to at least $120 to get there. Stepping up to the Voyage, which provides more LEDs and an adaptive light sensor, page-turn buttons, and a smaller profile, gets into the, “Oof, that’s expensive” range at $200+. And the Oasis, the new flagship model, pushes the boundaries of reasonableness at $290 (you can see all of the features and differences in this great comparison of Kindles).

Are all of those features worth the outlay of cash? That’s going to depend largely on your budget and how much time you spend reading. I spent over $200 on the Voyage when it came out, and it was worth every cent, largely because I do a lot of reading, and much of it is at night after my wife has already turned out the light and gone to sleep. The LEDs are mild enough to not wake her up.

Using the App: Pros

Even with all of the benefits of buying a Kindle, there are quite a few significant benefits to using the app instead. First of all, it’s totally free. Obviously you still have to pay for the books that you download (unless you’re taking advantage of the huge amount of free stuff you can get for your Kindle), but you don’t have to pay a thing for the app. If you have a Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, or Blackberry 10 device, you can download it.

And there’s definitely something to be said for getting the app on a device you already have. A Kindle is small and light, sure, but it’s still another device that you’ll have to store, charge, and carry with you if you want to take it anywhere. Using the app on a device that you’re probably already carrying with you anyway frees up a little storage space in your bag, which can be quite valuable (especially if you’re flying and have to pay by the ounce for your carry-on).


In addition to being available for pretty much any device out there, the interface for the Kindle app is really nice. Three different color schemes — day, night, and sepia — and easy brightness adjustment make it easy to get it dialed in no matter where you’re reading (unless you’re outside in bright sunlight; we’ll get to that in a moment). And while Kindle touchscreens are good, they’re not great: using the app on a tablet is going to provide you with crisper, faster interactions.

Because the app is in full color on other devices, you can highlight in multiple colors, which might not sound like a big deal, but if you’re using your Kindle for textbooks or any other book for school, you could put that to good use.

Using the App: Cons

You can probably already see where this section is going to go. The biggest drawback to using the app, of course, is the backlight on your device; it’s just not as nice as the e-ink and LED lighting that comes standard on the top-tier Kindles. You can definitely read in the dark, but even in night mode, it’s pretty harsh and will take a toll on your eyes. You’re probably already spending too many hours looking at a screen, and reading on one isn’t going to help. It’s also going to be extremely difficult to use in direct sunlight.


This is personal preference, but I find the lack of page-turn buttons on my iPad, where I most often use the Kindle app, to be a drawback. Moving my thumb half an inch and tapping or wiping to turn the page isn’t that big of a deal, but as I previously mentioned, 100 pages of it will show you just how nice those buttons are.

One of the more annoying drawbacks of the iOS Kindle app is that it doesn’t have access to the Kindle store, due to some restrictions put in place by Apple. The Android app does have access to the store, and presumably the Windows app does as well. However, because so many people like to read on their iPads, the lack of access on iOS can be a drawback.

And if the very small form factor of the Kindle is something you really want, the size of a tablet could be a drawback — though you can always use it on your phone, which makes it especially easy to travel with. Many people find that the size of their phone isn’t good for reading, though, so that could be another drawback.

Which Should You Choose?

As you can see, both the Kindle e-reader and the Kindle app have a lot of things going for them, but they both have a couple drawbacks as well (most notably, the Kindle’s price). And while anyone could be well-suited to either of them, there are a few things that might make you choose one over the other.

You’ll probably want a Kindle, for example, if you read a lot of books. Exactly what qualifies as “a lot” is open to interpretation, but I’d say if you read an hour or more every day, you’ll really benefit from the e-ink screen. If you tend to read outside or in the dark on a regular basis, the screen will be a big benefit, too.


I find that I really appreciate my Kindle when I travel, as well — the ability to put it in my pocket and read when I’m on a shuttle bus or waiting at a hotel is really nice, and the reading experience is way better than it is on a phone. Buying a new book from anywhere is nice, too.

If you don’t read quite as much, or the back-light doesn’t bother you, the Kindle app is a great way to save money on a rather expensive gadget. Using it on your phone isn’t ideal, but it can certainly be done. A tablet, however, is going to provide a better experience, in terms of both visuals and tactile feedback.

Probably the best way to figure out if you should buy a Kindle is to try using the app first. Read a full book or two over the course of a couple of weeks to see how you like using the app on your phone or tablet, and if you think you’d prefer a Kindle, then you can decide which model is best for you. If you prefer the portability and having that extra money in your wallet or purse, stick with the app.

Do you use a Kindle e-reader or the Kindle app? Or do you use a different e-reader app, like iBooks? Or even something else? How did you decide which one to use? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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