E-read all about it

by gabeatkinson / 08 December, 2012
E-book reader or tablet? Mobi or epub? Here’s a Christmas shoppers’ guide to reading in the digital age.
Photo/Thinkstock


E-book readers were big sellers last Christmas as the relatively cheap and easy to use digital technology was adopted by millions of book-lovers worldwide. Sales of e-books from online stores such as Amazon.com have surged as people discover the convenience of storing hundred of books on a single lightweight device.

US research suggests e-reader users devour more books, too: an average 24 a year compared with 15 for readers who prefer books of real ink and paper. But a year is a long time in the tech world. Today, tablet computers that include e-book apps as just one of many features are giving e-readers a run for their money. The advantages of dedicated e-reading devices are their simplicity, low cost, long battery life and easy-on-the-eye e-ink technology.

Amazon’s Kindle is the world’s best selling e-reader and my pick for the committed reader in your family this Christmas. I say that reluctantly because Amazon treats its New Zealand customers like second-class citizens. Its flagship e-readers such as the Kindle Paperwhite and the tablet-like Kindle Fire aren’t officially available in New Zealand. The Amazon Prime subscription service, which offers members flat-rate shipping costs, software applications and access to high-definition movies that can be played on the Kindle Fire, is likewise withheld from us, and nor is Amazon playing ball when it comes to allowing Kindle e-book borrowing from public libraries.

Where Amazon delivers is in the quality of its devices, which start at $149, and the unrivalled scale of its Amazon.com e-book store, which sells more than a million titles, many for as little as a dollar. Amazon’s unique way of suggesting books that may be of interest based on your browsing patterns and reader reviews can lead me to spending hours on the Amazon site, flicking through reviews and adding titles to my wish list.

COMBATING KINDLE


The Kindle’s two main rivals in the dedicated e-reader space in New Zealand are the Kobo and the Sony Reader. Although Amazon’s tardiness in making its entire range available here has left the way open for rivals to make inroads, the response has been lacklustre. Kobo and Sony have partnered with local bookseller Whitcoulls, which initially appeared to be a wise move. But the Whitcoulls e-book store is pricey. Whitcoulls sells The Casual Vacancy, by Harry Potter author JK Rowling, for $29; it is $12 on Amazon. Kobo users can bypass Whitcoulls in favour of the global Kobo store, but prices are comparable.

On the hardware front, however, the Kindle rivals fare better. The touch-screen Kobo Touch ($179) takes on the Kindle Touch and offers comparable performance in terms of battery life and features. Sony’s e-readers are more expensive, the T1 selling for $229. But the device gets rave reviews for its hardware design, user interface and screen quality. The T1 is popular with academics – many of them use their T1 to read personal documents as well as books.

A number of features are common to all three e-reader brands. They all allow you to resize text and they track your reading progress so you can easily pick up where you left off. An e-book reader with Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity, such as the Kindle Touch 3G ($249), can download books wirelessly, a feature of my 3G Kindle that gets a lot of use. E readers that can access the internet usually allow web surfing in a limited form. My Kindle takes me to Wikipedia, the BBC News website and my Gmail account.

The key to the Kindle’s success is the electronic ink technology used to display text on a digital page. It is fairly low-tech in the age of retina displays, but it replicates the familiar look of book pages, uses a fraction of the battery power of the iPad and Android tablets, and doesn’t leave you with gritty eyeballs. The $199 Kobo Glo has a non glare front-lit screen that illuminates the page so you can read in the dark.

E-BOOK READER VS TABLET


Before you slap down upwards of $170 for an e-book reader, do an inventory of the screens you already own – you may have a device that will do the job. Apple’s iPad doubles as a competent e-book reader, if you can stand the glare of the back-lit screen. With the screens’ adjustable brightness, many tablet owners have no trouble. The free Kindle or Kobo apps available from the Apple App Store and Google’s equivalent Play store bring all the functionality of an e-book reader to your tablet.

The iPad Mini ($479) and Kobo Vox ($319) also have back-lit screens and will let you surf the web, watch videos, check email, download apps and read books. A wave of new devices based on Microsoft Windows 8 will expand the options further. Kindle and Kobo apps are available for download from the Windows Store.

FORMAT WARS


E-books are simply small text files, so you can expect the latest digital paperback to be delivered to you in a matter of seconds. But complicating matters is a split in the e book market over file formats. Amazon uses the proprietary mobi format, which is incompatible with any other e-book reader. If you stick to Amazon, this isn’t a problem. But try to transfer a Kindle book to another e-reader and you’ll run into trouble.

Kobo devices and the Sony Reader use the open and more flexible epub file format, which allows the transfer of some e-books. E-reader makers use digital rights management (DRM) to restrict book sharing. Software applications such as Calibre can convert DRM-free e-book files between formats, which is handy as websites such as Smashwords sell e-books free of such restrictions.

To complicate matters further, Apple is pushing its iBook Store, particularly in the wake of the iPad Mini launch. Books bought through the iBooks store aren’t compatible with the Kindle, Kobo or other readers.

BOOK SWAP


E-book lending is in its infancy in New Zealand, but most of the country’s major libraries will now let members borrow e-books through the Overdrive system. But not books in Amazon’s mobi format, cutting a major player out of the e-book lending scene for the meantime. Public library e-book stores have a limited range with usually only one or two digital copies. E-book sellers have developed their own lending schemes for those with a personal library. Amazon allows lending to a fellow Kindle user for up to 14 days – while on loan, the book is unavailable to the lender. Kobo has a similar scheme.

My E-book reader Christmas picks


Kindle Touch



  • Over-the air-downloads

  • Connects to the Amazon store

  • Keyboard for fast searches

  • $249


iPad Mini with Kindle app



  • Best pint-sized tablet on the market

  • Runs existing Apple apps

  • A true multimedia device

  • From $479


Kobo Glo



  • Front-lit for comfortable reading in the dark

  • Lightweight, clean interface

  • Keeps stats on your reading habits

  • $199


Visit www.listener.co.nz/technology for more technology news and commentary.

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