Choosing an eBook Reader

If you are thinking about buying a device for reading ebooks, your first question will usually be, which one should I buy? This question will soon be followed by, what features should I look for?

When I purchased a Sony Reader back in 2008, there were few devices to choose among. Now there are so many options, it is hard to keep up. Here are some suggestions about how to make your decision.

Dedicated or Not?

The first decision is, do you want a device designed just for reading digital text, or do you want a device which can also be used for more general computing?

Dedicated ebook readers are typically lightweight, have monochrome “e-ink” screens that are increasingly paper-like in the way they present text, and have very long battery life between charges. They are easy to read in bright sunlight, but need an external light source for reading in a dark room.

Tablet computers, as currently exemplified by the Apple iPad, are bulkier devices, have high-resolution color screens capable of displaying video, and typically will need recharging after about 10 hours of use. They are not easy to read in bright sunlight, but because their screens are backlit they are easily read in bed at night without disturbing your partner.

Price

The market for dedicated ebook readers has become very competitive and prices are trending down quickly. I expect some of the better-known ebook reader brands will have models selling just under US$100 by Christmas, 2010.

Apple’s iPad currently starts at just under US$500 for the most basic model. Bear in mind, you are buying a product that is very close to a netbook or laptop computer. In that context, the pricing is not so startling. Competing tablet computers now entering the market, based mostly on Google’s Android operating system, will tend to compete with Apple by being lower-priced.

Vendor Lock-in

Companies selling dedicated ebook readers are mostly companies selling books, so they want you to be locked into their ebook retail store. It is sometimes possible to purchase and load ebooks from different vendors, but usually not simple.

Companies selling tablet devices are in the hardware business: they sell computers. So tablets generally have multiple applications available to allow you to purchase and read ebooks from multiple retailers. My iPad currently has software from Apple, Amazon, and Kobo on it, so I can (and do) buy and read ebooks from any of those vendors. I also have some general-use ebook reading applications on the device, adding to my options.

Ease of Purchase

Early ebook reading devices were awkward to use. My Sony Reader requires me to install two large software applications on my PC: one to be used for shopping for ebooks in the Sony Store; a second which “talks” to my Sony Reader when I tether it to the PC via a special USB cable and synchronized my ebook libraries between the two machines.

My experience with the Sony “tethering” approach has varied from good to terrible — every so often the complicated software will crash and freeze, occasionally forcing a reinstall on both the reading device and my PC.

Newer ebook readers and all tablets use either WiFi (wireless) or a cellphone network. This allows one to browse an ebook store, select and purchase an ebook, and download it directly to the reading device. It is incredibly convenient and in my opinion the only way buying ebooks should work.

Be aware that in 2010 some ebook readers are being released for sale that still require the tethering approach I describe above. My recommendation is, avoid them!

Quality

Do not buy one of these devices without trying out a few in retail stores first. Different ebook readers have different ways of moving from one page to the next on the screen. Some require a button push, others a tap on the screen. Some turn the page slowly enough that the delay becomes an irritant.

Check each device to see whether you can:

  • adjust font sizes and contrast to your liking.
  • highlight text and return to it.
  • look up words in a dictionary.
  • add notes to yourself about content.
  • tell where you are in an ebook (page numbers are somewhat irrelevant in ebooks because changing the font size changes the virtual page count, but an indication of how far you are in the text is I find useful).

Also ask the people in the store what other features the device has. This is mostly a question for dedicated ebook readers because (a) some offer the ability to read other material besides ebooks and (b) makers will we adding features to some models in their lines ti avoid having all at the most basic and lowest price point.

Monthly Charges?

So far, ebook readers have been sold like other consumer electronics: pay for it and it is yours. I expect we will soon be seeing cellphone vendors offering devices on a subscription basis similar to the way they sell cellphones: make a small payment, register the device on their network, and pay monthly fees.

As anyone who has analyzed what their cellphone really costs them knows, those subscription models are very expensive over time. Worse, you are locked into a contract for two or three years, in a market where next month’s new product can be a game changer.

Pocket-size?

Finally, a word about tiny ebook reading devices. Most smartphones, such as those from Apple, RIM, and the Android phones, are able to install ebook reading applications. Kobo provides these free for many kinds of phones and so does Amazon. These applications also are available for recent models in the iPod Touch line.

I do read ebooks on my iPod Touch, slowly. The screen is surprisingly easy to read, but the pages are inevitably short. I find I only use the device for reading in grocery checkout lines and medical waiting rooms. I don’t recommend these small devices for serious reading.

Recommendation?

Sorry, not going there! These are still expensive devices. If you purchase an ereader, chances are, you will use it a lot. I recommend investing the time to check them out in the stores selling the devices, and decide which one is the right one for you. The only other advice I will give is, be cautious about buying a brand you have never heard of; this is a new product category and there will be plenty of casualties among the no-brand makers as the market shakes out.

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