A guest post by Dr Julian Smart
Finding ebooks a bit of a minefield? It’s an exciting time for digital book technology but there’s plenty of scope for confusion and decision-making paralysis. In this article I’ll try to lay out the major alternatives for reading ebooks.
Why go digital?
First, a little bit of a puff for ebooks – skip this bit if I’m preaching to the converted!
Basic book technology hasn’t changed significantly for hundreds of years so it’s natural that there will be some resistance to a reinvention of them. Admittedly, less resistance given that most of us have been habituated to reading words on screens for the last few decades. We’re also getting used to the fact that the way our content is delivered is changing – the advent of CDs, DVDs, digital movie downloads and streaming catch-up services have all made us less concerned with the physical media, and more aware that it’s the content that is important. People also have limited space for books, and for some kinds of content, if you’re only going to consume the book once and move on to the next, why accumulate the physical carcasses of your past reads? Of course, the pleasure of books as physical objects is never going to disappear, but not all books are destined to be kept.
Reading a book on a regular computer screen is a somewhat unsatisfactory experience. The fixed nature of the screen, the distractions of other applications and the eye-strain-inducing LCD monitor technology all degrade one’s enjoyment and concentration. So the arrival of dedicated reading devices can be seen as a massive boon for book-lovers, who now have the flexibility and immediacy of digital book delivery combined with a portable and eye-friendly way to consume content. You can travel with a choice of hundreds of books now, and you can adjust text size to suit your eyesight. You can even have your book read out to you if your eyes are not up to it. Far from reducing the status of the book, the dedicated ebook reader is the ultimate compliment to the form: it turbo-charges your reading.
For authors, of course, the advantages are enormous since it allows circumvention of the conventional gatekeeping roles of publishers, agents and (to a lesser extent) retailers. The consequences of opening the floodgates presents a quality and marketing challenge that will not easily be solved, but the freeing of the book from the conventional arbiters of taste has to be an extremely positive force on balance.
Dedicated reader devices
The company making most of the running at the moment is Amazon with their Kindle reader, now at version 3 which means the new purchaser gets the advantage of many improvements over the previous generations. For an affordable price, the Kindle 3 provides a 6” grey-scale screen that’s readable in sunlight, speech synthesis, a mini keyboard, and both USB and wireless links (WiFi and optionally 3G) giving almost instant access to 400,000 books to purchase from Amazon and many more free books from a variety of sources.
Unlike most ebook readers, the Kindle uses a proprietary book format, Mobipocket, and does not support the open standard Epub. This is probably the most glaring downside of the Kindle; there’s a lock-in that you have to accept if you go the Kindle route. However, you can read Mobipocket books on the Kindle that have no DRM (Digital Rights Management) and you can easily convert files from other formats to Mobipocket, to read on your Kindle without going via the Amazon Kindle store. Also, most mobile and not-so-mobile devices have a Kindle app that allows you to read all your Amazon-purchased books. So you can read them on your PC, Mac, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, Android device and other gadgets, all synchronized so you don’t have to worry about copying purchased files between devices. Buy “The Butchered Man” on your PC and you’ll immediately be able to read it on your iPhone or Kindle. Stop reading a title on your Android phone, and pick it up at the same place on your iPod Touch later. This all works very smoothly, and Amazon have pretty much perfected the whole process of purchase and instant delivery to the consumer. The addition of a web browser and audio file support are icing on an already very tasty cake. (Don’t expect to use the web browser a lot, though; it’s a bit fiddly to navigate, but it’s fine for accessing free books on web sites, checking your email or getting a quick news fix.)
You’ll need a cover for the Kindle, although you’ll initially wince a bit over the price. Amazon’s covers do make it easier to hold the gadget without pressing buttons accidentally, and they provide good and stylish protection.
If you’re not sold on the Kindle and Amazon way of life, you will probably be interested in the Sony readers. They’re metallic and therefore shinier than the Kindle, so that’s a plus right there if you’re a magpie. One of the Sony’s more serious advantages is the provision of a touch screen. As many people have commented, in this age of the touch screen, it’s so tempting to try to prod the Kindle screen to turn pages or access options. Alas this will be in vain on the Kindle, but not on the Sony reader, which arguably has the edge in making digital book reading feel natural. However Sony have rather wiped out this advantage by not providing wireless internet, so all books must be transferred by a cable attached to your PC or Mac, or via a memory card. Maybe I’m lazy, but this feels very last-century compared with getting your books immediately over the ether wherever you are in the house (or in the case of the 3G Kindle version, anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal). The Sony readers are also considerably more expensive than the basic Kindle 3 model, which might be more forgiveable if they had WiFi on board. Sony readers do have expandable memory, but that’s not really an issue when the Kindle has several gigabytes of memory and a much easier way of getting books onto the device.
Stateside, the book giant Barnes & Noble have taken an interesting path with their Nook reader, which now has a colour LCD screen instead of an E-ink display. So it’s more like a general-purpose tablet device – they’re sacrificing battery life and long-term readability for the ability to display magazines, comics, children’s picture books and so on. It depends on what you’ll use it for but if you’re mostly a novel reader, it’s probably not the best choice.
Other ebook readers to consider include the Elonex eBook, Bookeen Cybook Opus and Libresco Iliad (see links below). They may well be good, but they will find to hard to compete with Amazon and Sony, so one has to wonder about their long-term future and support.
Reading on existing devices
Of course, you don’t have to use a dedicated ebook reader; as mentioned, you can use the Kindle app on most gadgets including the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets. Or you can buy your books from Apple’s bookstore and read them in the Apple iBooks reader app. The iPad doesn’t make the best ebook reader since it’s relatively heavy and (except in the dark) the screen isn’t so nice to read for long periods. Forget reading in direct sunlight, too. But then you probably weren’t thinking of taking an expensive gadget like the iPad to the beach…
On the desktop you can use Kindle for Mac or PC, or Adobe Digital Editions if you want to read Epub books from the Sony store, for example. On Linux, Windows and some mobile devices, you can use the open source FBreader application for non-DRM’ed books.
To keep your purchasing decision simple, consider the Kindle 3 and the Sony PRS series, and give the other machines a look if you’re feeling adventurous. Tablets, iPod Touch and phones make reasonable casual reading devices. However, if you mostly read monochrome books, don’t assume that that an LCD-based tablet device will substitute for a dedicated reader – it’s partly a matter of taste, but there’s a reason that E-ink screens are used in dedicated readers; the consequent readability and long, long battery life are important, as you will find if you are a keen reader. Besides, do you really want the distractions of the web and apps when you’re reading a book? The odds are high that you’ll find your dedicated, E-ink-based ebook reader a relaxing and treasured companion.
Amazon Kindle 3 (US): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002Y27P3M/ref=kindlesu-1
Amazon Kindle 3 (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B002Y27P46/ref=kindlesu-1
Amazon Kindle 3 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/06/review_e_book_reader_amazon_kindle_3/
Sony PRS-350 (UK): http://www.sony.co.uk/product/rd-reader-ebook/prs-350
Sony PRS-350 Pocket Edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/13/review_e_book_reader_sony_reader_pocket_edition_prs_350/
Elonex eBook: http://www.elonex.com/products/ebook/621eb-ebook.shtm
Barnes & Noble Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/index.asp
Samsung E60 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/09/30/review_e_book_reader_samsung_e60/
Bookeen Cybook Opus: http://www.bookeen.com/en/
Bookeen Cybook Opus e-book reader 2010 edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/06/04/review_e_book_reader_cybook_opus_2010_edition/
Libresco Iliad: http://www.iliadreader.co.uk/
Adobe Digital Editions: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/